The Merchant of Venice, Habima National Theatre, Dir. Ilan Ronen, May 28 2012 at The Globe, London
The Globe to Globe performance of The Merchant of Venice by Israel’s Habima Theatre was unavoidably different from all others in the Festival. Airport-style security greeted those audience members that had made their way past two groups of protesters, pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli, debating the right of a company criticised for performing in disputed areas to be invited to the UK, and the performance itself was punctuated, though not halted, by instances of protest in the theatre itself.
The actors of Habima emerged onto the Globe stage and called for a welcome, whipping the audience immediately into applause, foot-stamping and cheering. After taking a bow, the actors, dressed as Renaissance-era Italians, donned bright red carnival masks and began singing, dancing and creating a festive atmosphere. This revelry continued as Jacob Cohen’s Shylock entered the stage and, in high spirits, the Christian carnival-makers surrounded him, pushed him to the ground and kicked him mercilessly in the stomach. Only at the point of violence did the crowd fall silent; but how easily the same jubilant ribaldry that had swept along the audience was co-opted into the abuse of a Jew. Habima usefully pointed up the ease with which we are told what to think and can become implicated in abuse and suppression.
Habima’s fine production of Merchant pulled no punches in its depiction of anti-Semitism, with both Shylock and Tubal manhandled and abused as a matter of course by a group of selfish and wasteful Christians. Alon Ophir’s Antonio, in particular, was sickening. This tyrannical figure refused to sit in Shylock’s chair, decorated with a Star of David, and grabbed the frail, elderly usurer by the throat as he vowed he would abuse him again. Even while trussed up in the trial scene, he leered down at Shylock, a smile of satisfaction playing on his lips as Shylock’s plans were thwarted.
The “bonds” of this production were made literal on two levels. Ropes and pulleys hung all around the set, used initially to demonstrate Portia’s (Hila Feldman) entrapment. Standing on a chair centre-stage, her six suitors gathered around the edges of the stage and held the ends of ropes attached to her corset, positioning her at the centre of a tangled web of controlling attachments. For the trial scene, Antonio was placed on the same chair, but stripped to his waist and clipped to ropes that snaked up the pillars and across the yard, literally strung up by bonds that linked the entire building. Into these same bonds Shylock was later forced, hanging limply amidst the jeering Christians.
The other bonds were physicalised as reams of computer printouts, contracts to be signed by Antonio in the first instance, but also by Bassanio, who was presented with a disturbingly realistic head representing Portia and an enormous wad of contracts, which he began scrutinising instead of kissing her, to her dismay. The focus of the men on letters and contracts was a running theme, revisited at the end as Nir Zelichowski’s Lorenzo failed to look once at Liraz Chamami’s Jessica once he had received news of his (his) good fortune. The massive contracts also became Shylock’s punishment, Gratiano draping them over Shylock and leaving him to stumble, slowly and blindly, offstage following the trial.
The prejudice running throughout the production was not always held up to adequate critique, however. While Portia and Nerissa’s dismissive attitude towards Jessica extended to even forgetting her name, Jessica’s disappearance at the production’s close left unresolved a growing problematisation that remained unclear. The biggest change to the text was the creation of a conflict between Jessica and Lorenzo that saw her threaten to leave him, and was alluded to throughout the ring incident as she screamed at her husband, but I was unclear regarding exactly what she was objecting to, and the sadness she showed on hearing of her father’s misfortune was kept upstage and unremarked. Far more problematic was the treatment of the suitors. The establishment of these scenes was entertaining, as a team of sycophantic make-up artists and tailors dressed actors up in stereotypical national costume. However, Danny Leshman as Morocco covered himself in black make-up which even rubbed off on Portia, to her disgust. The laughter at this was disturbing, and the production didn’t seem to have a point to make here about racism, leaving this problematic device uncriticised and, apparently, amusing to much of the audience. A similar, though less loaded, approach informed Yoav Donat’s appearance as Arragon, moustachioed and screaming “Ole!”
At the end of this show the applause for the company lasted a long while, a mutual celebration between audience and actors of the successful completion of the performance. Yet anyone watching carefully, who had listened to a production that spoke eloquently of the silencing of dissenting voices, should have had serious questions about the anger with which the performance’s own dissenters (both off stage and on) had been greeted before and during the performance. If a production concerning the silencing of dissenting voices can only be heard by silencing dissenting voices in the auditorium, then perhaps the play has never been more timely.
Teaching Associate in Shakespeare & Early Modern Drama, Faculty of Arts
University of Nottingham