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.
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: www.youtube.com/watch?v=jmg-mPSAeCE
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: www.youtube.com/watch?v=aBBXYsdt8Jk
Howard Jacobson was writing J, a novel about a dystopic (non-) Jewish future, when publisher Hogarth invited him to join a relay team retelling Shakespeare in contemporary settings. He was assigned The Merchant of Venice – an inspired choice that allowed him to tell the story from Shylock’s perspective. But Jacobson’s blinder, proving again his extraordinary inventiveness, is to have Shylock slip into present-day Cheshire to share the narrative with his 21st-century counterpart Simon Strulovitch, and chew over his own story as told by Shakespeare. Shylock arrives without fanfare as the story opens, not in Venice but in a bleak Jewish cemetery in Manchester, the city where Jacobson was raised. He is communing with his long-dead wife Leah, “buried deep beneath the snow”. So Shylock engages the reader’s sympathy: within this take on the play is a meditation on loss, as well as scabrous satire on the materialistic celebrity denizens of Cheshire’s ‘Golden Triangle’.
For Jacobson, the beating heart of Shakespeare’s Shylock is not in the defiant speeches he throws in the faces of the Christians who bait him, but in his response to the news that his errant daughter Jessica has exchanged his ring for a monkey. “I had it of Leah when I was a bachelor. I would not have given it for a wilderness of monkeys.” Around these lines Jacobson builds his case for Shylock in love, bereaved – and the lone parent who cannot give his daughter what she needs.
Strulovitch, visiting his mother’s grave recognises Shylock and invites him home. And so begins their relationship, played out in a succession of conversations, the pair ensconced in armchairs, cradling brandy, comparing notes on errant daughters, discussing every move and motive and most of the dialogue that drives Shylock in Shakespeare’s play. They analyse the contradictions driving Strulovitch, “a rich, furious, easily hurt philanthropist with on-again off-again enthusiasms”, and the butt of antisemitism, above all from the effete aesthete D’Anton (Jacobson’s Antonio) a rival art collector,Strulovitch, visiting his mother’s grave, recognises Shylock and invites him home. And so begins their relationship, played out in a succession of conversations, the pair ensconced in armchairs, cradling brandy, comparing notes on errant daughters, discussing every move and motive and most of the dialogue that drives Shylock in Shakespeare’s play. They analyse the contradictions driving Strulovitch, “a rich, furious, easily hurt philanthropist with on-again off-again enthusiasms”, and the butt of antisemitism, above all from the effete aesthete D’Anton (Jacobson’s Antonio) a rival art collector who has made smiling sorrowfully at his own Weltschmerz into an art form.
As in the play, the Christians revel in their antisemitism, even vying to top each other’s ‘Jewpithets’ by referring to Strulovitch as “moneybags”, “thick-lips” and “hook-nose”. Strulovitch is arguably worse off than Shylock: his wife is trapped by a stroke in a useless body. His daughter Beatrice, of an age with Jessica, is vividly present, though her father dreads her frequent absences as she threatens to spend the night with a succession of unsuitable men – none of them Jewish, of course. Jessica is absent from the novel, because Jacobson has Shylock caught as if in aspic at the end of Shakespeare’s story. As Shylock says, for him there is no Act Five (his last appearance is leaving court in Act Four).
Jacobson’s gift for comedy glisters pure gold as he makes merciless fun of the self-obsessed celebs surrounding his Portia – a reality TV hostess and plastic surgery addict called Plurabelle, whose full name is Anna Livia Plurabelle Cleopatra A Thing of Beauty is a Joy Forever Christine. And there’s more fun with names. Enter Gratan Howsome, politically incorrect footballer of little brain with the hots for Jewesses, and hunky but vacuous arm-candy Barnaby, Plurabelle’s squeeze and D’Anton’s protégé.
If you know your Shakespeare you’ll hug yourself as you work out Jacobson’s deliciously witty reworking of his plot lines. In a twist on the casket scene, Plurabelle tests her suitors by having them choose between her three cars – a Merc, BMW or humble Beetle. And circumcision is central to an ingenious if potentially grisly plotline. Jacobson plunders his source text and other authors for quotes, sometimes bending their words, always putting them to great use. He grants Shylock his Act Five, calling his last chapter just that. But even this may not be his final act, for if he is Strulovitch’s Shylock, who is to say where he has appeared before or might appear again? Hogarth’s commission is a gripping addition to Jacobson’s writing on what it is to be Jewish.
By Judi Herman
Shylock Is My Name by Howard Jacobson, Hogarth Shakespeare, £16.99. Read Judi Herman's interview with Howard Jacobson over on the JR website, first published in the January 2016 issue of Jewish Renaissance.
Howard Jacobson will talk about his book at Jewish Book Week on Sunday 28 February, 5pm, at King’s Place. www.jewishbookweek.com
The 500th anniversary of the Venice Ghetto might take place in 2016, but I feel as if I’ve already spent some time with its embattled Jewish community, at least as seen through Shakespeare’s eyes, as I watch The Merchant of Venice for the fourth time this year.
I guess this might be in contrast to the excited, noisily appreciative, mostly young audience at the National Youth Theatre's sparky and sparklingly funny production. Even if they are studying the play at school, this might be the first time they've seen it, so it’s good to be able to report how much they enjoyed a comic treat. The play is after all dubbed a comedy, even though it also presents huge problems and not just for the Jews in the audience.
The young cast is not afraid to hit those problems head on. The NYT originally performed this version by Tom Stoppard in China in 2008 with a cast made up of both young British and Chinese actors. This was the year of the Beijng Olympics, so they experienced artistic censorship “heightened by human rights controversy”, writes director Anna Niland in a programme note. Despite this, she continues, “the play’s themes of persecution, racism and inclusion rang true to local audiences and our young international cast.
"With Italy experiencing an immigration crisis that brings these themes to the fore, I have decided to set the play in modern Venice. However, I also think it’s crucial to hang onto a semblance of the historic Venice Shakespeare was writing about.” She goes on to talk about exploring the play through the eyes of Shylock the ‘alien’ and posits that the production “will ask how much has really changed for those considered alien today.”
The production sets out its stall before the play begins, with establishing shots – silent face-offs between the main protagonists, much of it to the gorgeous accompaniment of composer and musical director Tristan Parkes’ setting of 'In Belmont lives a lady…' perfect for Grace Surey's smoky voice. She is surely a future jazz star. The Christians may exchange meaningful glances, perhaps to establish the possibly homoerotic relationship between Antonio and Bassanio, but all of them glare at Shylock. Andrew Hanratty’s Antonio has a gravitas beyond his years and Jason Imlach’s Bassanio sports a useful beard which gives him maturity too. Add to this Luke Pierre’s tall, rather elegant Shylock and it’s easy to take all three very seriously indeed.
And just because Pierre’s Shylock is so dignified, the contempt in which he is held by Antonio and Bassanio, and later his humiliation and ruin by Portia in court, have the power to shock. True, Shylock and Antonio gingerly shake hands, which is more contact than I’ve seen in other productions this year, but then the eponymous merchant does indeed ‘spit upon’ Shylock’s ‘Jewish gabardine’. I’ll assume the couple of titters evoked by those Jew-baiters and haters Salerio and Salanio (a vicious double act from Oliver West and Conor Meaves) thrusting the pig-head masks they are wearing at Shylock, were down to discomfort.
The gabardine in question is made rather a colourful affair by the addition of coloured ribbons at the waist, evoking tzitzes (the prayer fringes of the Orthodox Jew) with the colours perhaps also suggesting the Spanish origins of this Sephardi Jew.
Cecilia Carey's striking costume and design are a vital part of Niland's bold concept. Her Carnival-time Venice is exuberantly, edgily stylish but in its own almost eccentric way. True the Carnival masks are traditional, but Alice Feetham's poised, intelligent Portia is a lady in red with a style and sexy panache all her own. It's in eye-catching contrast to Jessica's black and pink pleats beneath a clever cape which becomes a hood when she pulls it over her head, as a modest Jewish maiden should, to go outdoors.
But the apogee of her costume design is surely the extraordinary confection sported by Lauren Lyle's wildly funny Prince of Arrogan (their spelling - possibly Stoppard's - not mine!). Lyle brilliantly exploits its slinky contours and purple sash to create her comically androgynous suitor and relishes sashaying on impossibly high platforms, as she quite literally feels up each of the 'caskets' as if it were Portia herself! Before I leave the clever cross casting in the comedy roles that ensures jobs for the girls, let me make honourable mention of Paris Campbell's equally ardent Prince of Morocco; and Megan Parkinson's Lancelot Gobbo, the cheekily insouciant servant leaving Shylock's service for Bassanio's, together with versatile Grace Surey as Old Gobbo, his parent, here transformed into Old 'Mother' Gobbo - rather a fine below stairs double act.
This all matches Carey's equally quirky stage design, simple and versatile. The action takes place against a backdrop of huge Venetian (naturally) blinds and those three 'caskets' are actually three wooden structures that work separately or together to create steps, beds and the witness boxes in the courtroom scene.
Their quirkiest use though, is as those caskets, each flying a balloon of the relevant colour, gold, silver and of course lead! But happily there’s no way the so-called casket scene goes down like the proverbial lead balloon! The wickedly playful ‘Team Belmont’ of Feetham’s Portia and Melissa Taylor’s cheerful, wise-cracking Nerissa have a great time sending up the suitors Portia must entertain; and Nerissa’s gleeful rendering of a relevant musical number for each casket – e.g. ‘Hi Ho Silver Lining’ for the silver casket - goes down a treat with the audience, who joined in and sang along. Mistress and waiting gentlewoman work up an authentic tension as Bassanio rejects each wrong casket in turn and Portia and Bassanio achieve a touching tenderness as they fall into each other’s arms in relief.
Meanwhile, the tension in the home life of Shylock and Jessica is a much darker affair. Though again the production achieves a touching moment – for me perhaps the most telling. At the climax of the very few lines they share, it’s actually a mute moment. In one of the most moving gestures of the production, Francene Turner’s Jessica, about to leave her father forever, cannot go without giving him a last desperate, lingering hug – a hug that clearly takes him by surprise and moves him too. It's all the more poignant because he does not know its significance. When he learns it though, his rage is all the more understandable, so he earns sympathy when Oscar Porter-Brentford’s supportive Tubal reports that the errant Jessica has given away her late mother’s engagement ring in exchange for a monkey.
Given that a female Doge (stately Ellise Chappell) presides over Venice's court, it might be considered an anomaly that Portia has to disguise herself as a man to appear as a lawyer, but, if anything, in this modern setting it genuinely raises eyebrows that she has to do so, perhaps just because it reminds the audience of the realities of life for women in some countries today. Of course though, for the comedy to work, Bassanio and Gratiano must not recognise their brand new wives, so disguise is a given. Cole Edwards’ Gratiano achieves the brash comedy in his role and displays the casual racism written into his character and Gavi Singh Chera is a Lorenzo as interested in his bride as in her fortune.
Although I’m not entirely convinced that the production draws the parallels with today’s immigration crisis, I am sure that this fresh reading of the play ensures that those who have seen it before take a fresh look at it and those who are new to it will have a clear idea of the comedy and the problems – and what all the fuss is about.
By Judi Herman
The Merchant of Venice runs until Wednesday 2 December. 7.30pm & 2.30pm. £12-£19.50. National Theatre, South Bank, SE1 9PX; 020 7452 3000. www.nationaltheatre.org.uk
Don't let the buggers grind you down. Try to come over as laid back. They wear a strange eclectic mix of what they see as achingly trendy, or sharp city wear, set off with flamboyant footwear in bright – too bright – poster colours. So wear a dingy blouson over an old cardigan and keep your dignity, simply wipe off their spit when they show their contempt for you. This could be what's going through Shylock's mind in Makram J Khoury's finely calibrated performance, which positively radiates a relaxed gravitas.
It is to be hoped that Khoury, the popular, award-winning Palestinian-Israeli actor didn't base it too closely on his experience as a man caught between two worlds in his native country. Certainly when Christian Venice shows its contempt by spitting on Shylock's "Jewish gabardine", the gasp of horror that runs through the audience is even more of a shock wave than the similar audience reaction when this treatment is meted out to Jonathan Pryce's dignified Shylock at Shakespeare's Globe.
Khoury’s trajectory is frighteningly clear here, from distracted father outraged by his daughter Jessica’s's elopement and her profligate spending and disregard for her dead mother's ring, to vengeful would-be killer. Given the special disgust displayed towards him by Jamie Ballard's alarmingly volatile Antonio, it's hardly surprising he seizes the opportunity to whet his knife and prepare his scales in open court, now entirely indifferent to what the hostile Christians make of his behaviour.
This is the third time this year that I have seen this problematical play and each time I am struck by how little stage time Shylock shares with Jessica. Shakespeare magnifies the awkwardness of what today would be dubbed their dysfunctional relationship by showing so little of it onstage. And, in the few moments they do share together, Jessica is in turmoil over her imminent elopement and the need to deceive her father to make her escape. Here director Polly Findlay and designer Johannes Schültz trap Scarlett Brookes’ awkward, gawky Jessica at an impossibly high window in her father’s house. So there even less connection as he leaves for the dinner with his new creditor Bassanio that will give her the window of opportunity she needs to escape with her Christian lover Lorenzo (James Corrigan), as well as her father’s jewels and ducats.
Indeed Findlay, sharing her vision with Schültz and costume designer Anette Guther, builds an especially alienating dystopic Venice, where it’s easy for the audience to share Shylock’s discomfiture. Belmont, wealthy heiress Portia‘s nearby estate, similarly offers little in the way of refuge, even to its owner and her chosen guests from the city, let alone the foreign suitors at whom this Venetian lady pokes fun. The audience is reflected in the huge brass mirrored wall atop which Jessica appears and there is nowhere to hide on a thrust stage with only a mysterious (and perhaps more distracting than hypnotic) pendulum on which to rest the eye, joined briefly later by three symbolic ‘caskets’ lowered from above.
There is certainly nowhere to hide in Venice or Belmont, from creditors in the city, from the whim of a dead father, controlling his daughter’s choice of husband from beyond the grave. And there is nothing to distract from the actors, who first take the stage from seats on Brechtian benches at the rear. If anything, Guther’s flamboyant, jarringly disparate costumes are the set dressing. Patsy Ferran’s intelligent Portia might be grateful to don sober lawyer’s garments, after the hard poster colours of the little shift dresses that seem to be current Venetian jet set fashion here.
There is, though, a shock awaiting her at court. For at the centre of Findlay’s reading of the play is what turns out to be a love triangle, where Portia sees what the audience has known from the start – she must share her new husband Bassanio (Jacob Fortune-Lloyd) with Ballard’s tortured (and I don’t mean by Shylock), depressive Antonio, who claims him with a desperate kiss as he awaits his fate. It certainly makes sense for Portia to channel her discomfiture and anger into her inspired and literally blood-chilling case against Shylock. So this ‘comedy’ becomes even more of a problem play, if Portia and Bassanio’s wedded bliss looks uncertain before their marriage is even consummated.
Meanwhile, Khoury’s now coldly focused, implacable Shylock makes the most of his day in court, almost whetting his knife on Antonio’s bare chest. No wonder Antonio screams and cringes. And though Shylock loses everything, he is perhaps more incredulous than broken and makes it clear that playing for sympathy - from court or audience – is beneath him. Even he is upstaged by a tsunami of banknotes raining down on the court – effective but perhaps heavy-handed symbolism.
By the time Portia and her faithful waiting gentlewoman Nerissa (an especially warm and literally supportive performance from Nadia Albina – these girls are close) return to Belmont, Jessica and her Lorenzo do not look entirely comfortable with each other either. Jessica seems almost aggressive as she and Lorenzo top each other with their references to pairs of mythical lovers who might have shared such an enchanted night as theirs, alone on Portia’s estate while its mistress is away at court. The magic should have been enhanced by a floor gradually lit by candle after candle filling the stage, the effect doubled by that mirror wall. But their brash brightness is too obvious a visualisation of Lorenzo’s description of "the floor of heaven thick inlaid with patines of bright gold"; the patina on the brass of that mirror would have done nicely. Perhaps the only real beauty in the evening is provided by the choristers, "young-eyed cherubim" indeed, to quote Lorenzo again, singing Marc Tritschler’s unearthly plainsong from the heights of the set. It’s a particularly discomfiting and alienating reading of this difficult play and though the creative vision is clear, it is perhaps too much of a straitjacket for the drama.
By Judi Herman
The Merchant of Venice runs until Wednesday 2 September (broadcast live in cinemas on 22 July). 7pm & 1pm. £5-£60. Royal Shakespeare Theatre, CV37 6BB; 084 4800 1110. www.rsc.org.uk
The Merchant of Venice may be considered the most problematical of Shakespeare’s problem plays, especially in the current climate of a perceived threat of heightened antisemitism, but there’s more than one Yiddish version of the story, including M. Zamler’s 1929 novel with a brand new title, Shaylock (Der Soyher fun Venedig). Tellingly it is billed as based on Shakespeare’s tragedy.
Shylock’s is not the title role in Jonathan Munby’s spirited, yet thoughtful new production for Shakespeare’s Globe, but Jonathan Pryce’s commanding, complex Shylock takes centre stage in each of the few scenes Shakespeare writes for him. In fact Shylock and his rebellious daughter Jessica (played by Pryce’s real-life daughter Phoebe Pryce) get a few more lines than usual – they first erupt on to the stage in the middle of a furious row – in Yiddish!
Pryce (a notable Fagin, but banish all thoughts of that here) has said in interview that he would love it if the audience booed him, yet by the time they watch him arriving in court armed with knife and scales to cut and weigh the famous pound of Antonio’s flesh, it’s clear how much he has had to bear from all the Christians of Venice – especially from Antonio, who really does "spit upon" his "Jewish gabardine" (with the compulsory yellow circle, forerunner of the Nazi yellow star, stitched on the breast) even as he is asking to borrow money. There’s an especially shocking moment, when Shylock’s treasured copy of the five Books of Moses (the Torah), that he clearly carries with him for constant consultation (here looking up the story of Jacob and Laban which Shakespeare has him reference), is wrenched out of his hands and contemptuously flung on the ground. And skull caps off to Munby for some nice research – when Shylock stoops to rescue it, he kisses it to restore respect, a gesture you can see in any synagogue when a prayer book is accidentally dropped.
His distress at hearing that Jessica has exchanged his late wife’s ring for a monkey is especially touching, bringing a temporary moment of quiet sympathy from the usually raucous groundlings, at least the night I saw the play.
Phoebe Pryce’s Jessica has her own awkward path to negotiate once she has broken free of her father to flee with her Christian love Lorenzo. Although wealthy heiress Portia makes the new couple welcome at her grand home and leaves them in charge of it, she causes her young guest a moment of discomfiture when she takes her place to partner Lorenzo in a formal dance that just happens to be slightly suggestive too – does it perhaps smack a little of droite de seigneur?
And usually the last the audience sees of Shylock is a broken man begging for leave to go from the court, under imminent threat of being forced to convert to Christianity. Here his last word is "credo" ("I believe") part of a Latin mass, a conversion ceremony orchestrated by Antonio – either watched or imagined by a distraught Jessica.
But of course Shakespeare’s Globe is not staging Shaylock. Munby’s reading of Shakespeare’s comedy really does get laughs from the whole house, not just the delighted groundlings, two of whom get to strut their stuff onstage to some of the loudest applause that greets every bit of inspired stage business. They are roped in to help out the clownish servant Launcelot Gobbo, who deserts Shylock for a new master ahead of Jessica’s flight. Stefan Adegbola works the crowd with obvious and expert delight. It’s a pleasure to watch him at work – and so happy in it too!
Others shine in smaller roles as well. Dorothea Myer-Bennett as Portia’s waiting gentlewoman Nerissa, is wonderfully sprightly and intelligent, getting laughs from every echo of her mistress, for example as she is courted by Gratiano, man to Portia’s chosen suitor Bassanio; and even in the sometimes tedious subplot which sees both mistress and maid, disguised in male attire tricking their new husbands into yielding up the rings they gave them to plight their troth. David Sturzaker’s Gratiano is more likeable than some, despite his eager embrace of antisemitism, which is after all as endemic in Venice as anywhere else in 16th-century Europe – and despite an opening gambit that has him throwing up after a night out.
Scott Karim’s Prince of Morocco, somehow managing to be dignified and ridiculous at the same time and Christopher Logan’s wonderfully daft Prince of Arragon, straight out of Carry On Columbus, get the very most out of their cameo roles. They underline the ‘Little Venice’ prejudice of Portia and her clique, worthy of UKIP; for the young women have already ridiculed suitors from all over Europe before this brave pair dare to face the rather cruel trial that Portia’s late father has decreed for those who seek her hand.
That’s not to say that Rachel Pickup’s intelligent, even prickly Portia and Daniel Lapaine’s handsome though febrile Bassanio and Dominic Mafham’s repressed Antonio don’t hold their own throughout. It’s more a paean to the completeness and effectiveness of this production in every role.
Mike Britton’s simple stage design, letting his colourful costumes sing out, and Jules Maxwell’s delicious music, played and sung by a surprisingly small and hugely effective ensemble (singers Jeremy Avis (also musical director) and Michael Henry and Nuno Silva with Dai Pritchard on clarinets and Catherine Rimer on cello) enrich this hugely satisfying period production.
By Judi Herman
Photography by Manuel Harian
The Merchant of Venice runs until 7 June. 7.30pm & 2pm. £16-£43 seats, £5 standing. Shakespeare's Globe, 21 New Globe Walk, SE1 9DT; 020 7401 9919. www.shakespearesglobe.com