'The Merchant of Venice' review — Shakespeare's comedy possesses a new and recharged ruthlessness

Matt Wolf
Matt Wolf

Shakespeare’s most vexed “comedy”, so-called because of the commingling of couples at the final curtain, has a new ruthlessness worthy of its venal landscape. Heavily cut and reordered so as to foreground the grievous fate that is meted out to the moneylender Shylock and its effect on his traitorous daughter Jessica, Abigail Graham’s staging of The Merchant of Venice jettisons the often-ludicrous closing act, in the process laying bare a play that on this evidence occupies much the same fearsome wide-boy environment as Laura Wade’s play Posh.

That’s certainly the territory inhabited by an opening scene that finds the play’s younger men raucously and drunkenly spitting out the word “Jew”. These are the sorts of well-heeled, casually chic lads whom you can imagine doing serious damage if you were by chance to look at them cross-eyed mid-revelry.

Bassanio (Michael Marcus) is here a hip-swiveling gay man tethered to Michael Gould’s mysteriously morose Antonio: a partnership one images has come at a financial price, which itself helps explain Bassanio’s interest in the fortune promised by an heiress, Portia (Sophie Melville), who would seem to know considerably less about the “quality of mercy” than she is quick to declaim.

Graham’s Merchant clocks in at 2 and a quarter hours, largely by cutting to the meat of a play that, after all, hinges on the delivery of a pound of flesh. As a result, the play is pacy and vivid, sometimes raucously funny but more often troublingly trenchant.

In this iteration of a play accompanied by so many online caveats that you have to wonder whether people realise that drama is meant to be, well, dramatic, not even the potentially saintly, hectoring Portia emerges unsullied by the prevailing moral malaise. 

A sequined sex kitten as required by a competition for her affections that is itself demeaning, she’s here seen to be a faux-giggly contestant on the game show that has been made of her life: and when she reappears disguised in the courtroom for one of the play’s two most famous soliloquies, Melville brings a slightly crazed, sibilant quality to that speech. 

Capable herself of racism and mockery, this Portia is hardly best equipped to lecture Shylock on his or anyone else’s behaviour, her hypocrisy all too fully attuned to the community at large. In thrall to a ghastly if unseen father and a ghastly, and highly visible, array of misogynists, Portia is for a change rescued from terminal priggishness into something far darker: a woman of means who has somehow managed to sell her soul.

Graham gives full weight elsewhere to that strand of the play that is about a father severed from his daughter, as Jessica abandons both a parent and a religion to go over, as it were, to the morally depraved dark side. Invoking at the start the Black Eyes Peas’ rousing anthem to the promised “good night” ahead, the superb Eleanor Wyld finds in Jessica a fecklessness that makes something doubly powerful of the Kol Nidre she speaks at the close: a woman shocked into prayer by the savagery at large.

Adrian Schiller’s Shylock is one of the best I’ve seen — a man of composure and dignity done in by the demands of an agreement that finds him quaking in the presence of Michael Gould’s bare-chested Antonio — one of the retinue of “Christian husbands” to whom Shylock makes mournful reference. His “hath not a Jew eyes” brings the first half of the evening to a quietly wrenching close, helping us to see in the round a forbidding Venice that has no place at its table for “pork-eaters”, to co-opt the language of the text.

This play traditionally asks spectators to give over their attention to the fate of Nerissa’s ring as the plot tilts towards faintly silly terrain that puts one in mind of Cosi fan Tutte. But there’s nothing remotely trivial about the impact left by Graham and a top-rank cast, who deliver a troubled and troubling play into the here and now and demand that its shivery power follow us home.

The Merchant of Venice is at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse to 9 April. Book The Merchant of Venice tickets on London Theatre.

Photo credit: Adrian Schiller in The Merchant of Venice (Photo by Tristram Kenton)

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