The Merchant of Venice

William Shakespeare
Ovation DVD
(2006)

It is a mark of the finest theatrical productions of the classics that they make viewers completely redefine their understanding of a play. Sir Trevor Nunn's Merchant of Venice does not only provoke new reactions to Shylock but also to the Venetians who make his life hell.

However the impact of this amazing Merchant goes a step further. It might even make some reconsider their attitudes to certain aspects of life in general and more particularly human behaviour.

In this version, originally seen in the Cottesloe Theatre in 1999, Sir Trevor is aided by a multi-award-winning performance from Henry Goodman as the "mean" Jew who has been hated down the generations but now suddenly, seems wholly sympathetic and intelligible.

Designer Hildegard Bechtler provides a stylish set that places the play in the Jazz Age with Portia's home lined with paintings after Gustav Klimt.

David Bamber plays Antonio the Merchant as a mean-spirited, gay man motivated by his physical desire for Bassanio (Alexander Hanson). When the latter falls for the wealthy heiress Portia and needs money, Antonio is foolishly eager to act as a surety.

In Venice, the Jew was traditionally the money lender and the strictly orthodox Shylock, an honourable businessman, is an obvious choice when a loan was needed. The fact that Antonio had treated him like dirt in the past was apparently neither here nor there since this was expected behaviour.

It should also not be forgotten that as an affluent and influential Jew, Shylock felt himself to be a representative of his people. The parallels with the Fascist states in the 1930s and in particular Hitler's Germany are hard to avoid.

Life is not all grim with the comedy at its best as Portia's egotistical suitors line up to make love to her (in the old sense) and try and find her likeness in a casket.

As every schoolchild knows, the bond that Shylock demanded was a pound of Antonio's flesh. Before this, Shylock's position was constantly undermined by the Venetians and his errors of judgment were greatly coloured by the elopement and religious conversion of his daughter Jessica (Gabrielle Jourdan).

Only through the shrewd efforts of the appropriately tall Portia, cross-dressing as a young lawyer, is the day saved. Dearbhla Crotty who plays Portia must have enjoyed herself in court, since according to the notes included on the DVD, she originally studied law.

There are many memorable scenes in this production and in particular, in court both Shylock and Portia deliver tremendous speeches before the knife is poised, seemingly for an eternity over Antonio's breast. This may not be entirely realistic but it certainly adds to the dramatic tension.

It is also in court that the full scale of the anti-Semitism that Shylock suffers is demonstrated by the attitudes not only of Antonio and his friends but also the noble Duke who presides and should surely know better.

One might also argue that the devastating sacrifice that Shylock is finally forced to make by Antonio having lost a court case, to give up not only his self-respect but even his religion, could be seen as at least as great as that which Antonio had faced.

This DVD marks another production that should be on every theatre-lover's shelf and together with Sir Trevor's Othello in a double box set would make a wonderful gift.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher