Venice Ghetto 500

Review: The Merchant in Venice ★★★★ – Shylock triumphs in the Ghetto and in the courtroom

Merchant in Venice © Andrea Messana There's nothing like an anniversary to resonate with a production of a play. The conjunction of the 500th anniversary of the establishing of the Venice Ghetto and the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death have provided an irresistible opportunity to stage The Merchant of Venice in the ghetto itself for the very first time.

An ambitious and bold production of what is arguably Shakespeare's most controversial play by the joint forces of the Compagnia de' Colombari and Ca' Foscari University of Venice brings together an international cast performing in several languages and styles in the heart of the Jewish ghetto, lending a symbolism and interpretation impossible elsewhere.

While it's doubtful that Shakespeare ever encountered an actual Jew or had that much, if any, knowledge of the ghetto (he never mentions the word) and writes largely stock English characters and their perception of "aliens", the play explores the innate prejudices and bias of all of us and our behaviour when faced with the 'other', and so remains as relevant as ever in today's world. The play is not just about antisemitism but about ethnic and religious differences, conflict between parent and child and the fickleness of love.

The playing space is three sides of the Square at the heart of the Ghetto Nuovo, with a backdrop of vertiginously high buildings that any art director could only dream of. When Jessica throws down Shylock's money and jewels to the waiting Lorenzo, she literally throws them out of a first floor window. Set and lighting designer Peter Ksander merges nature (gradually adding lighting as night falls) and architecture with the touches needed to enhance both atmosphere and action. His vision is enhanced and complemented by costume designer Stefano Nicolao's monochromes, creams and whites, loose trousers with flowing robes, organza sleeves and overskirts – all slashed with the scarlet of Venice for the pomp of the court scene. Andrea Santini’s sound also gets help from nature, with a chorus of stage-struck cicadas.

The Venetian theme is realised wonderfully from the opening by Francesca Sarah Toich. Playing the servant Lancillotto (aka Lancelot Gobbo), Toich does so as an androgynous Arlecchino figure in Commedia dell'arte style, complete with an extraordinary deep-voiced interpretation of a comic speech about love in old Venetian dialect, which is joyously picked up by the rest of the cast as a jaunty carnivalesque song.

Merchant in Venice © Andrea Messana (1)

The song has been created and arranged for the cast and glorious small band by composer Frank London, who also provides the rest of the music that beautifully underscores the action. London draws on Judaeo-Ladino and Italian traditions, lending that carnival atmosphere to Lancillotto's antics and a heady romance to the air of Belmont as required. In their black organza robes, which contrast attractively with the creams worn by the actors, the band look as good as they sound, particularly London himself, in arresting headgear, and the twin violinists Nikole and Alexandre Stoica.

Members of the cast slip easily in and out of Italian, localising the play ever more. And since English is not the first language of many of the cast, it is good to hear them speaking Italian from the present as well as the past, alongside Shakespeare's English, spoken here by actors from numerous countries and backgrounds, and so often sounding unfamiliar to those of us brought up on productions made and performed in Britain.

Director Karin Coonrod and her team made a conscious decision not to run a straightforward version of the play but to show how we all have a Shylock within by casting the role of Shylock to five different actors, making a statement about how complex and confusing he is; how hard it is to really know him.

The five different styles of the actors playing Shylock make the audience create their own multiple personality of the character, helped by the use of Yiddish, Judaeo-Venetian, Ladino and English, emphasising the multiplicity of Jewish experience, as well as the Jewish complexity of the Venice Ghetto. Each successive Shylock must don a yellow sash, Nicolao's choice for the badge to identify the wearer as Jewish, which of course immediately recalls badges imposed on Jews from the circles of Medieval Europe to the stars of Nazi Europe. These are especially powerful ritual moments as one Shylock succeeds the other, 'ministered to' by silent figures dressed in black and dubbed "black angels".

There is another striking image of all five Shylocks sharing the space around the trees at the heart of the stage (and therefore the ghetto); a company of Jewish ghosts almost offering each other support, just as Jessica steals her fathers’ treasure – and is stolen away herself – among a crowd of loud, crude, laughing revellers. For otherwise, each Shylock is as isolated as we might imagine the Jews to be in the ghetto. Although the Ghetto 500 exhibition charting its history argues powerfully that there was plenty of two-way traffic, despite the enforced closure and confinement of its Jews between midnight and 6am.

Merchant in Venice © Andrea Messana (2)

In fact, a feature of the production is the uneasy isolation of all the players in this problem 'comedy'. There's a clear directorial decision to play the scenes wide and out to the audience, which knowingly limits the intimacy between the characters, especially Shylock and Jessica and the various pairs of lovers.

Of the five Shylocks, one is played by a woman, Jenni Lea-Jones. She pointed out to us on JR OutLoud that because his wife Leah has died, Shylock has had to be both mother and father to Jessica. In a way it’s perhaps a pity then that Lea-Jones is not the Shylock who gets to share the one brief scene Shakespeare gives him with his daughter. But she does articulate all the fury and clarity of Shylock’s impassioned claim for consideration as an equal: "Hath not a Jew eyes?" Perhaps it is here the impassioned claim of a woman, too.

The first of the other four Shylocks is Bombay-born Sorab Wadia (who doubles as arch Jew-hater and baiter Gratiano). He gets to lend 3,000 ducats to Antonio and suggest the "merry bond" of the pound of flesh, giving as good as he gets with a sturdy fearlessness in the face of the shocking antisemitism of the Christians he must deal with. The last is American actor Ned Eisenberg, playing the trial scene with such an implacable stillness that you can see he will not be moved, and why, until he is forced to break by what seems like a shocking reversal (see the verdict of the mock appeal below).

The other two Shylocks are Italian Adriano Iurissevich, who gets to relate to Jessica as a rather older father (he also makes a splendid older suitor for Portia as a Spanish guitar-playing Duke of Aragon); and a second Italian actor Andrea Brugnera, who gets to play the wronged father, his fury awoken by his errant daughter’s flight with his treasure (as reported to him by fellow Jew Tubal, again played by Eisenberg), including that turquoise ring with its emotional significance and what surely tips him into the implacable revenge-seeker of the court scene.

It’s worth remembering, as already mentioned, that it's as much rejection of the other as the Jew that Shakespeare explores here, for Portia, who expounds on the quality of mercy, is merciless in sending up and rejecting the 'other' lovers who seek her hand, above all the Prince of Morocco (a dignified and sympathetic Matthieu Pastore), who fears rightly that his "complexion" will count against him.

Merchant in Venice © Andrea Messana (4)

As for the various pairs of lovers, they seldom touch one another, much less embrace. All Linda Powell's intelligent Portia gets from her Bassanio (Michele Athos Guidi) once he has chosen the casket that delivers her as his bride, is a kiss, albeit a lingering one. The closest contact between anyone is, ironically and shockingly, between Antonio (Stefano Scherini) and Shylock, as Antonio "prepares his bosom for the knife".

And I have seldom seen the love of Jessica and Lorenzo nipped in the bud quite so quickly and cruelly. By the time they return from the 'honeymoon' spending spree on which she gives her dead mother's betrothal ring in exchange for a pet monkey, Lorenzo is already treating her like a serving maid, shoving the heavy case of jewels into her arms to carry without a backward look as she trails uneasily behind him. And by the time they reach the beautiful ornate poetry of their moonlit love scene in Belmont, things are so uneasy between them that Lorenzo's plea of "sit Jessica" becomes a command she obeys by sitting on a fountain several metres away. Paul Spera is not afraid to play Lorenzo as a cool calculating young man, obviously in it for the money. His concupiscent smirk when he learns he has 'inherited' half of Shylock's wealth is so transparently chilling that it can only confirm to Jessica that she has made a fatal mistake. Watching the light go out of Michelle Uranowitz's vulnerable, affection-starved Jessica is almost heart breaking.

Howard Jacobson avers that he usually leaves the play at the end of act four when Shylock leaves the action, and the end of the play here is a little rushed. Nonetheless, although the audience might allow itself some much-needed laughter and apparent light relief at the fun Portia and Nerissa have at the expense of their new husbands, who, failing to recognise them attired as barrister and clerk, have given away to them their betrothal rings (especially designed by Giampaolo Babetto, so not to be parted with lightly), it is far from clear what the future holds for Portia, Bassanio and Antonio, trapped in a strange love triangle, and for the apprehensive Jessica.

Yet as the five Shylocks emerge from the assembled company, asking each other and the audience, "Are you answered?" and the word "mercy" is projected on the tenement blocks of the ghetto square in the languages of the play, including the Yiddish, Rachmones, the contradictions of years of ghetto life help to illuminate this darkest of Shakespeare's comedies.

Merchant in Venice © Andrea Messana (3)

The Mock Appeal (in the matter of Shylock v Antonio)

Here at Jewish Renaissance, we’ve been working up quite a head of steam about Venice Ghetto 500, The Merchant in Venice, and the Mock Appeal on behalf of Shylock, heard before a jury of Judges presided over by The Honourable Ruth Bader Ginsburg, associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States.

Before the performance of The Merchant in Venice on Wednesday 27 July, an expectant audience – including the great and good of Venice and further afield – gathered in the stunning surroundings of the Scuola Grande di San Rocco in the centre of Venice, taking in the rich, dark Biblical scenes with which Tintoretto adorned the high ceilings, and to marvel at the gilded pillars and pediments, wooden reliefs on the benches and the shining red and cream marble floors.

Everyone stood as the judges and advocates processed in, dignified in their dark robes set off with golden tassels. American actor F Murray Abraham, a famous Shylock in America, gave some of his most famous lines, with Judge Ginsberg supplying Portia’s lines. Then three advocates in turn – first for Shylock, then for Antonio and the Republic of Venice and finally for Portia – had 20 minutes each to make their cases. Or rather be put through their paces by Judge Ginsburg, for the razor-sharp mind of the octogenarian justice was more than a match for the three advocates, each of whom found himself pulled up by her incisive questions.

As Ginsberg appeared to floor Avvocato Manfredi Burgio, representing Shylock, I feared that his fate would be as bad, or worse, than in that first court scene in Shakespeare’s play. But as she put Avvocato Mario Siragusa, representing Antonio and the Republic of Venice, and New York’s Jonathan Gaballe, representing Portia, through a similar ordeal, I thought the scales might tip in his favour after all. When the distinguished jury went out to consider its verdict, two extraordinary Shakespeare scholars (and both Jewish), Stephen Greenblatt and James Shapiro, took to the podium to share their thoughts on the play. They assured that even if the judges took eight hours to deliberate they could keep going. They spoke so brilliantly that I rather wished they had been obliged to go on all night.

But the jury did return and the singular and exciting news is that they ruled in favour of Shylock. Since Portia was not a trained lawyer and appeared under false pretences; and since they deemed it a miscarriage of justice that Shylock should find himself accused, found guilty and sentenced in the court at which he had come to appear as plaintiff; and since it was unconstitutional, to say the least, for Antonio, the former accused, to suggest Shylock’s punishment of confiscation of half his goods in favour of Lorenzo, with whom his daughter has eloped, and conversion to Christianity on pain of death, those punishments should be revoked. And what of Portia? She was found guilty of fraud and bigotry and sentenced to three years at law school.

Happily both the production and the mock appeal have been carefully filmed and will be available online as part of the Shylock Project, thanks to the organisers of Venice Ghetto 500, under the extraordinarily resourceful and imaginative leadership of Shaul Bassi, associate professor of English Literature at Ca’ Foscari University. Full details of how, where and when these resources will be available online will be posted here on the JR Blog.

By Judi Herman

Photos by Andrea Messana

JR OutLoud: As Shakespeare's Merchant finally arrives in Venice, we speak to actor Paul Spera

As the long-awaited date of the first performance of The Merchant of Venice in the Venice Ghetto itself arrives this week, in the last of our series of interviews with members of the company, JR's arts editor Judi Herman talks to French-American actor Paul Spera. Based in Paris, Spera plays Lorenzo, the Christian youth who elopes with Shylock's daughter, Jessica – and plenty of his money and jewels – thus goading the distraught father into seeking the revenge that leads to his demand for the famous pound of flesh from Antonio, the merchant of the title. Spera is interesting casting for the role of the Christian lad who steals away with the Jewish girl as he is half Jewish himself. And so we come full circle with this series of interviews with members of Compagnia de Colombari, for we began with Michelle Uranowitz aka Jessica herself.

JR OutLoud: As Shakespeare's Merchant finally arrives in Venice, we speak to actress Francesca Sarah Toich

As the long-awaited date of the first performance of The Merchant of Venice in the Venice Ghetto itself arrives this week, in the last of our series of interviews with members of the company, JR's arts editor Judi Herman talks to actress Francesca Sarah Toich. Playing the role of Lancillotto, the servant to Shylock and confidante of Jessica, his daughter, normally a male role, but here intriguingly played by Toich, as a sort of cross-gender Harlequin figure. Italy-based Francesca is an award-winning performer who combines skills and experience in the very physical Commedia dell Arte tradition with a huge vocal range.

JR OutLoud: Jenni Lea-Jones talks to JR about her role in The Merchant in Venice at Venice Ghetto 500

In the next of our chats with members of the cast and creative team of the very first production of The Merchant of Venice to be staged in the Venice Ghetto itself, Judi Herman talks to Welsh actress Jenni Lea-Jones, who has relocated to Venice and is perhaps the most unusual of the five performers sharing the role of Shylock in the show they are calling The Merchant in Venice. Apologies for the quality of the line at the start of this conversation, which happily soon improves.

JR OutLoud: Frank London talks to JR about composing for The Merchant in Venice at Venice Ghetto 500

In the next of our chats with members of the cast and creative team of the very first production of The Merchant of Venice to be staged in the Venice Ghetto itself, Judi Herman talks to Frank London, composer and musician. The Grammy-winning trumpeter and composer, founder of the Klezmatics and leader of bhangra/Yiddish group Sharabi (with Deep Singh), Shekhinah Big Band, and his Klezmer Brass Allstars is no stranger to large-scale collaborative projects, or of course to Jewish-themed work. Here he talks about the musicians who are working with him on this project and his inspirations for the music that will be heard in the Ghetto.

See Alexandra & Nikole Stoica, the twin violin virtuosos from Romania that Frank talks about, who will play in the production:

Hear music by Salomone Rossi (his beautiful Kaddish – the mourner's prayer), the 17th-century, Italian-Jewish composer, who was one the inspirations that Frank mentions:

Interview: Shaul Bassi discusses the mock appeal to be heard alongside Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, which is being performed in the Venice Ghetto for the first time

Shaul Bassi In July, as Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice is performed in the Venice Ghetto for the very first time, a trial featuring advocates for Shylock, Antonio and Portia will take place in Venice’s Scuola Grande di San Rocco. Will it overturn the verdict from the play, in which Shylock is tried, found guilty of threatening the life of a Venetian, and then fined and forced to convert to Christianity? Shaul Bassi, director of Beit Venezia: A Home for Jewish Culture, and one of the movers behind the city’s Jewish cultural events this year, reveals his side of the story.

"It is more accurately a mock appeal," explains Bassi. "A wonderful companion piece to the production. And it’s to be held in one of the most prestigious and breathakingly beautiful venues in Venice, the Scuola Grande di San Rocco, almost entirely decorated by Tintoretto.

We’re not going to see the play’s characters. It is a mock appeal, so we’re going to have three advocates for Shylock, Antonio and Portia. Each will present a case for Shylock, Antonio with the Republic of Venice and Portia.They will try to persuade a jury of five real judges that they should reverse or confirm the verdict of the trial in the play. It’s a kind of legal sequel."

The verdict of the play could be overturned. How does Portia come to be represented?

"The idea was to keep Antonio and Shylock as the plaintiff and defendant, but one of the lawyers working on the project said there’s a case to be made that the whole legal procedure of the play was illegal because Portia was practising the law without a licence. That adds to the fun."

Who is the presiding judge?

"Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, a legal eagle and public icon for human and civil rights in the States and beyond. We’re privileged to have her offering a contemporary dimension to our discussion.

There’s no Jewish majority in the jury. Everyone is coming here with the idea of being even-handed, but also to do their best to help the audience see al the legal and ethical implications of the play from all possible angles."

You’re also going to share what you’ve found out about Venetian merchants and the law in Shakespeare’s time…

"We’re going to have a small presentation on arbitration in early modern Venice – at that time it wasn’t a good idea to go to trial. Merchants went out of their way not to go to trial when they had a dispute to settle! They would try to resort to arbitration and the funny thing I’ve learned is that there was even a verb ‘palazzare’ which meant to go to the Palazzo Ducale for trial, which was the one thing they wanted to avoid at all possible cost."

The line up of internationally famous guests contributing to the evening doesn’t stop with Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg, doesn't it?

"We’re going to be blessed with the presence of actor F Murray Abraham, a celebrated Shylock in the United States. He is not part of the production but of the documentary series Shakespeare Uncovered, so he’s going to lead discussion on  certain aspects of the play and  read out extracts. And we’re also blessed with the presence of two of the most brilliant Shakespeare scholars, James Shapiro, who wrote Shakespeare and the Jews; and Stephen Greenblatt, who has really changed the history of Shakespeare criticism."

So how will they fit into the evening?

"Each will give a little speech on the play and the three lawyers will present their case for 15-20 minutes each with questions and answers from the jury and finally we’re going to find out what’s going to happen because there’s no script. We have a structure but there’s no forgone conclusion.

All this (the trial alongside the performances of The Merchant of Venice) would not be possible without these people who really understand the uniqueness of of this moment 500 years since the creation of the Ghetto, 400 years since Shakespeare’s death. It’s an amazing coincidence, which we also wanted to use to reflect. Talking about today, it’s also about the role of foreigners in any society – the extent you’re prepared to change society to accommodate them, to expel them once they become a disturbing presence – it’s a very topical play."

How can we watch the proceedings?

"Tickets are understandably limited, but we’re going to film it."

What is your role in the production of The Merchant of Venice, as well as the events surrounding it?

"I am Associate Professor of English Literature at Ca’ Foscari University and this production and concept was conceived at the university. This very fruitful collaboration between our university and Compagnia de’ Colombari, an international theatre company, is not an academic production. It’s multi ethnic (it includes American, British, Croatian, French,  Indian and  Italian actors) and colour blind and to some extent gender blind. And people have brought their legal knowledge to the table. first and foremost Justice Ginsberg, so it’s a great collaborative project. It’s also winner of a Creative Europe project that included two British Universities, Queen Mary College London and Warwick University and the programme Global Shakespeare. We’ve been working together to show how Shakespeare is relevant throughout Europe."

What will be the legacy of these extraordinary events?

"We’re going to turn all the artistic material, the outcomes of both the trial and the production into educational material. The main goal for dissemination of the project will become a resource for people interested in the play that we’ve called the Shylock Encyclopedia. It will be online and the idea is that it’s really accessible to everybody and maybe it will also be a sort of open encyclopedia that one can add posts to. We want to put everything at the disposal of students, scholars, actors and directors, whoever wants to deal with this most controversial of plays for years to come."

By Judi Herman

Find more interviews with members of the Venice Ghetto production of The Merchant of Venice on JR OutLoud. Or visit for further info.

JR OutLoud: Davina Moss talks to JR about her role in the production they're calling The Merchant in Venice at Venice Ghetto 500

davina moss c Andrea Messana An update from Italy: Davina Moss writes:

"Rehearsals are going well! We’ve gone from table work to staging and it’s important to figure out the geometry of the space. Everyone is very excited with how the project is progressing and we’re making some very cool discoveries in the rehearsal room. In this photograph you see us debating over a line in the trial scene, which different versions of the play have different wordings for."

As the celebrations to mark the 500th anniversary of the Venice Ghetto continue, excitement mounts over the first ever performances of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice in the Ghetto itself (26-31 July). In the next of a series of interviews with members of the cast and creative team, JR's arts editor Judi Herman talks to Londoner Davina Moss, currently studying dramaturgy at university in New York, to find out more about her role as assistant dramaturg on this unique production.

Visit for more info.

JR OutLoud: In light of Venice Ghetto 500, actor Michelle Uranowitz talks to JR about playing Shylock's daughter as part of the anniversary celebrations

As the celebrations to mark the 500th anniversary of the Venice Ghetto continue, excitement mounts over the first ever performances of Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice in the Ghetto itself (26-31 July). JR's arts editor Judi Herman will be talking to various members of the cast and creative team in the coming weeks, but first spoke to American actor Michelle Uranowitz about playing Shylock's rebellious daughter Jessica in Venice.

Visit for more info.