By Laura Kressly
Should we even be staging Shakespeare’s anti-Semitic play featuring a Jewish moneylender depicted as an unfeeling avenger, forced conversion to Christianity and reams of violent language? I’m inclined to say no, but this production goes some way in counteracting the anti-Semitism. Though the contemporary context is largely superficial rather than embedded into the story and it’s not always clear which character is which, director Alex Pearson has fought against the script’s inherent racism with the addition of Jewish prayers and a movement sequence.
Contrary to these efforts, there are no changes or cuts to the anti-Semitic language in the text. Though it may be difficult to excise all of it, sections that could be altered were presented in their hate-filled and derogatory original. It’s a puzzling choice considering the addition of Shylock’s chanting of The Shema, and a closing movement sequence depicting the violent, forced conversion that’s his punishment for attempting to kill Antonio. This demonstrates just how awful and discriminatory Christians can be, and the racism that underpins the play. Both of these devices are moving and weighty additions that accompany a quietly restrained central performance.
A set made of plastic sheeting and hi-vis costumes indicate a cold, industrial location. It’s quickly established that Antonio and his crew are drug traffickers, though this has little bearing on the story or its stakes. The small cast each take on multiple roles. Jackets and hats over stage blacks are used to distinguish characters, but it can be difficult to remember which jacket belongs to which person. It also potentially muddles the courtroom scene where Portia is disguised; anyone who doesn’t know this twist in advance could easily misunderstand this part of the play.
The performers are capable and energetic, maintaining a pace that drives the story forward. Because of this and the two-hour running time, there’s not much need for the interval as it disrupts the story’s flow. No doubt Pearson has had a hand in this. Along with the additions to counter the problematic elements of the play, this makes for a more – but not totally – palatable production.
The Merchant of Venice runs through 19 October in London.
The Play’s the Thing UK is committed to covering fringe and progressive theatre in London and beyond. It is run entirely voluntarily and needs regular support to ensure its survival. For more information and to help The Play’s the Thing UK provide coverage of the theatre that needs reviews the most, visit its patreon.