My standard is this—does the setting do justice to the play and particularly to Shakespeare’s words?
Shakespeare’s plays have survived all kinds of productions, some of which give new meaning to the expression “in the public domain, no one can hear you scream” (an expression I believe originated in a Charlie Suisman review in The New York Times). Still, innovative settings often provide the perfect context to illuminate the meaning of words written hundreds of years prior, so my standard is this—does the setting do justice to the play and particularly to Shakespeare’s words? If the answer to both is yes, I’m up for Shakespeare on the moon, Shakespeare in the Crimean War, or whatever else a creative producer may come up with. On the other hand, if the producer’s conceit overpowers the play, then I’m really not interested.
The 1974 ATV production of The Merchant of Venice comes down on the right side of things, with an innovative setting (late 19th century London) that illuminates rather than obscures the play. The television production had its roots in a 1970 National Theatre production, directed by Jonathan Miller, which is notable as the last stage performance of Sir Laurence Olivier. The television production, directed by John Sichel, includes much of the original cast as well as Miller’s basic conceit of Antonio and his friends as Victorian businessmen and Shylock as a moneylender whose services they used even as they despised him.
I’m not a huge fan of Olivier in his scenery-chewing mode, and that’s pretty much what you get with his performance as Shylock. Still, some people like it (Olivier was nominated for a Primetime Emmy for his efforts), and it doesn’t spoil the rest of the play. Another note regarding Olivier’s performance—he downplays the character’s Jewishness (reportedly due to Miller’s direction), and some lines have been cut that would make it more difficult for the audience to see Shylock as a sympathetic figure.
Joan Plowright really steals the show as Portia, who not only gets to deliver one of the all-time great Shakespearean speeches (“The quality of mercy is not strained…”) but also gets to indulge in a bit of gender performance as well. I refer, of course, to Portia’s appearance disguised as a (male) judge, which in Shakespeare’s day would have meant that the boy playing Portia was disguised as a women disguised as a man. Plowright proves her merit here as a master of understated characterization (the opposite of Olivier’s hamming) and the rapid yet distinct delivery of complex dialogue. Jeremy Brett makes a noble Bassanio, Anna Carteret matches Plowright beat for beat as Nerissa, Portia’s maid; and Anthony Nicolls plays Antonio (the merchant of the title) as the elder statesman of a culture of well-to-do Englishmen who are secure in their privilege and who know exactly who is a member of the club and who will never be.
The elephant in the room with Merchant is the attitude displayed toward its Jewish characters. There’s no getting around the fact that many of the “English” characters are casually anti-Semitic, and the play ends with Shylock being ordered to convert to Christianity. Needless to say, none of this would be acceptable today, but this play was written some 400 years ago. If Shakespeare’s attitudes are not always in line with those generally acceptable today, the same can be said of many other writers and historical figures. If we refused to read and study any literature that expressed problematic attitudes toward women, for instance, there would be very little left in the canon. So perhaps a more useful attitude with works like Merchant is to note the attitudes we find problematic, consider how they are embodied in the work in question, and move on from there. In other words, discussion and investigation produce more useful results than censorship. | Sarah Boslaugh
The Merchant of Venice is distributed on DVD by Shout! Factory, with a street date of May 17. There are no extras on the disc.