The Merchant of Venice

William Shakespeare
Pascal Theatre Company
Arcola Theatre
(2007)

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Mention The Merchant of Venice and Shylock springs to mind. Refer to Shylock and unflattering images of a Jew are conjured up despite numerous attempts to portray him in a more sympathetic light.

Julia Pascal's treatment of Shylock and co. introduces an interesting and stimulating insight in this production. The dramatic ploy used is a play within a play, an effective device if the audience eventually manages to appreciate the thematic links.

Sarah, a Warsaw ghetto survivor, and a guide wait for the rest of group to arrive for a tour of the old Jewish ghetto in Venice. The city is buzzing with activity as the Carnival and a dress rehearsal of The Merchant of Venice are in progress before Lent. Background information on the origin of the Ghetto is introduced, as is Sarah who was saved by her father who helped to obtain papers that identified her as a 'Catholic Aryan'. She survived the Holocaust by living as a Catholic. Sarah is played by Ruth Posner, herself a survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto. Sarah's story of her escape from Warsaw is inspired by Posner's own experience. The ironic contrast with Jessica's voluntary conversion to spite her father is momentarily touched upon when Sarah attempts to plead with the Shakespearean character not to betray her faith and father.

Shylock is portrayed as a victim of anti-Semitism through his staged trial and the social hypocrisy unmasked in the direction of Shakespeare's play. The appearance of monks in the conversion ceremonies highlights the coercion as well as the humiliation in that practice, even when the convert, Jessica, adopted that path of her own volition. On the other hand, the imposition of Christianity on Shylock is rather brutal and akin to a crucifixion.

Pascal's Shylock benefits from the superlative performance of Paul Herzberg. He breaks with the stereotypical, traditional characterisation of the physical character. He is not a bearded old man: on the contrary he is a rather handsome, well built individual in his 40's, able to present his case with lucidity and eloquence. He is a caring father and a proud Jew.

Miranda Pleasance is a flirtatious and vivacious Portia. Pascal's production undermines Portia's credibility as a noble and respected female well before she exercises her deception when appearing as the 'judge and jury' in the Court scene. She even gestures to Bassanio indicating which casket to choose.

The added subplots in this production do not always sit comfortably with the production of the title play, although one senses the potential of this device. Sarah's role is rather raw and undefined. The few attempts to engage her in the Shakespearean plot, either as Jessica's conscience or as a compassionate onlooker on Shylock's plight, seem tenuous. The dances alluding to the Carnival, which appear between some of the scenes of the dress rehearsal, introduce female dancers in costumes of white brassieres and matching bottoms and prompt curiosity mingled with incomprehension. One can only guess what this is supposed to mean: could it be the sexual liberation of the female characters in the play?

Although this production suffers from some weak performances and dubious scenes in the subplots it is recommended as a theatrical experience which is bound to provide much food for thought.

Running until 13th October

Reviewer: Rivka Jacobson