When Darko Tresnjak staged The Merchant of Venice, his intention was to generalize the antisemitic theme to include other marginalized peoples who suffer at the hands of the high-status in-group. He cast actors of color as the servants, Nerissa (Christen Simon Marabate) and Launcelot Gobbo (Jacob Ming-Trent). Antonio (Tom Nellis), the only principal character who does not marry, is played as a homosexual, at least for the moment in Act IV when saved from death, he kisses Bassanio (Lucas Hall) full on the mouth. If seen as a homosexual in a homophobic society, his isolation makes more sense. But what of Bassanio’s reciprocal response? More of that later.
The problem with this universalistic approach is that the play does not support it. Except for the occasional bigoted remark against another outsider – such as Portia’s (Kate MacCluggage) “Let all of his complexion choose me so” when the Prince of Morocco (Ralph Nash Thompson) leaves
Belmont without winning her hand – all the vicious abuse and, at times, casual prejudice of the country club variety is directed at Shylock. Venetian society poses no danger for Antonio. He is free to spit upon Shylock because Shylock, as a Jew, is everyone’s victim, as Shakespeare’s lines make clear. Shylock may detest Antonio, but publicly has to ignore his taunts and his wiping his hand – as Antonio does in this production – after shaking hands with Shylock. Shylock’s yearning for revenge is shared with the audience in an aside early in the play.
If I can catch him once upon the hip,
I will feed fat the ancient grudge I bear him.
Although entitled The Merchant of Venice – a reference to Antonio whose investments are tied up in shipping – it might have been more fitting to have called it The Money Lender of Venice. Despite appearing in only five of twenty scenes, Shylock is the focal point of this strangely unbalanced play. Productions are measured by his portrayal.
F. Murray Abraham is a moving, shrewd, controlled and powerful Shylock, who handles Shakespeare’s language with skill. His Shylock is both urbane and ironic, qualities not usually associated with this character. An outsider who has made himself indispensable, he maneuvers his way through the frenetic money-obsessed Venetian society situated, according to the program, in the “near future.” Carrying a cell phone and dressed in a white shirt, tie, and business suit, only his small black yarmulke (and F. Murray Abraham’s subtly performed ethnic gestures) seem to set him apart. But when relaxed, he opens his jacket revealing the fringed undergarment worn by religious Orthodox Jewish males, allowing the audience to see how much of his Jewishness is hidden.
While contemporized Shakespeare is not usually to my taste, the transposition from the Rialto to
Wall Street works, due largely to John Lee Beatty’s sleek setting. Upstage hangs a set of reflecting panels that look metallic, but are actually plexiglass. “All that glisters is not gold.” On both sides of the stage stand tall metal structures; linking them is a bridge, which offers additional playing space. The bridge is used to good effect at several instances, most impressively in illuminating the distance between Shylock and his daughter (Melissa Miller). Shylock returns home, and believing all is well, goes up and chants a Hebrew prayer, while below Jessica, plotting to run off with the Christian Lorenzo (Vince Nappo), kneels and cleans the Sabbath candlesticks. She is the picture of a well-behaved Jewish daughter, modestly dressed in a long blue jumper and long-sleeved blouse.
Projected on three large hanging LCD screens are texts and images that set tone and atmosphere. In Venice, the screens show stock market quotations. Under the screens are three tables, each holding MacBooks. Technology is on display: the Venetian “traders” are constantly busy with their smartphones.
Technology has also worked its way into Portia’s Belmont, which in this production is no idealized romantic haven. Her suitors’ retinues sport cameras and the Prince of Morocco (wearing an Arab headdress) arrives in a private jet. Belmont’s magic is updated; the MacBooks stand in for caskets, their messages instantiated as carnivalesque grotesques. When Morocco wrongly chooses the gold casket, death in the shape of a skull – flames shooting out around it – is exhibited on a screen, while echoing voices scold, “Fare you well, your suit is cold.”
As heiress of Belmont, Kate MacCluggage is cool and attractive, but shows little passion for Bassanio. (Lack of ardor affects the playing of all of the romantic relationships.) MacCluggage’s coolness is an asset in the courtroom scene where, disguised as the lawyer Bellario, she is supposed to take command – a challenge when playing opposite Abraham. Her quality of mercy speech is sincerely delivered. Shylock, leans toward her, head down, listening intently. The speech over and Shylock unconvinced, Portia consults the computer, where she finds the solution (perhaps on Wikipedia?) that saves the day for the Christians and, particularly, Antonio. Shylock’s bond specifies that he take only a pound of flesh; if Antonio bleeds, Shylock will be guilty of plotting against the life of a Christian. Too late, Shylock tries to make amends. His punishment is the confiscation of his property, half going to the state and the other half to Antonio. Antonio, who until now has shown no mercy toward Shylock intervenes, offering to return his share of Shylock’s goods, if he converts to Christianity and leaves his estate to the traitorous Jessica and Lorenzo.
On hearing he must convert, F. Murray Abraham screams and falls to his knees, a man who has lost his identity. He exits, stumbling and weeping, his yarmulke that has been roughly knocked off his head, lying on the floor.
In the joy of the moment Antonio and Bassanio kiss in full sight of the cross-dressed Portia, a clever piece of staging. The embrace motivates her otherwise incomprehensible test of Bassanio’s fidelity. Bellario/Portia demands that Bassanio reward her with the ring that she herself gave him earlier, provided that he wear it always or lose her love. Her maid Nerissa, whose actions mirror Portia’s, plays a similar trick on her husband Gratiano (Ted Schneider).
Back in Belmont , with financial problems resolved and the ring plot revealed, traditionally, happiness reigns among the three couples. In Tresnjak’s version, however, a somber mood pervades. Jessica is unsure of herself in this environment, tottering in her high heels, awkward in her new ill-fitting party dress, and quarreling with Lorenzo. When she learns that she is her father’s heir, a guilty expression flashes across her face. As soft jazz plays in the background, the couples, with the exception of Jessica and Lorenzo, drink a glass of champagne. They all dance slowly and dejectedly as the lights fade.
The Merchant of Venice
ArtsEmerson at the Cutler Majestic, Boston, MA
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Darko Tresnjak
Sets by John Lee Beatty
Costumes by Linda Cho
Music and Sound by Jane Shaw
Hair and Wig Design by Charles LaPointe
Video by Matthew Myhrum
Originally Produced by Theatre for a New Audience
Shylock – F. Murray Abraham
Balthazar, servant to Portia – Andrew Dahl
Antonio, a Merchant of Venice– Vince Nappo
Solanio, friend of Antonio and Bassanio – Grant Goodman
Bassanio, friend to Antonio, and suitor to Portia – Lucas Hall
Portia, an heiress of Belmont – Kate MacCluggage
Nerissa – Portia’s waiting-woman – Christen Simon Marabate
Jessica, daughter to Shylock – Melissa Miller
Launcelot Gobbo, servant to Shylock – Jacob Ming-Trent
Antonio, a Merchant of Venice – Vince Nappo
The Prince of Arragon, suitor to Portia/Tubal, a Jew, friend to Shylock/The Duke of Venice – Christopher Randolph
Solerio, friend to Antonio, and Bassanio – Matthew Schneck
Gratiano, friend to Antonio and Bassanio – Ted Schneider
The Prince of Morocco, suitor Portia – Raphael Nash Thompson
Kate MacCluggage (Portia) and Lucas Hall (Bassanio)