First Nighter: The Royal Shakespeare Company's Outstanding 'Merchant of Venice' Is Screened

No one who knows The Merchant of Venice is unaware of the famous and often considered odious character Shylock's being a Jew both sinned against and sinning. Rarely, however, have I seen a production of William Shakespeare's play where the anti-Semitism is more acute than in Deborah Findlay's superlative Royal Shakespeare Company account. It's screening today (August 23) and at other times elsewhere (check local listings), and is highly recommended.

Findlay's handling of the tricky work achieves something not often attained. Shylock's inflexible insistence on the bond he made with Antonio for a pound of flesh were the 3,000 ducats not repaid -- that's to say, Shylock's unrelenting stance as a broader revenge on the Christians who've tormented him throughout life as a usurer -- is decidedly matched by his tormenters' virulent prejudice.

These include not only Antonio (Jamie Ballard), whose misfortunes put him in Shylock's debt, and Antonio's swaggering cronies. They also include the usually more gracious Portia (Patsy Ferran) and even the judge presiding over Shylock's case when it's brought to court. At times, all of them are portrayed as nothing more nor less than leering, sneering bigots.

The extent to which Shylock (the Palestinian actor Makram J. Khoury) is so severely humiliated that it's difficult to decide, as Findlay has staged it, whether he's any worse in refusing to show mercy (which Portia explains is "not strained") towards Antonio than any of the others in their steely intolerance of him. Shylock talks about being spit on by Antonio, but in Findlay's startling literal presentation, Antonio actually grabs Shylock, pulls him inches-close and violently spits in the man's face twice. Moreover, he's not the only one so inured to the society's anti-Semitic sentiments that they can't speak the word "Jew" without wrapping it in hatred and spitting in demonstration of their disdain.

While the Shylock plot is the most discussed when The Merchant of Venice is a topic, there's another thick tread to the play: the love stories, each written and presented here in a tone far removed from the coruscating Shylock exploration. Indeed, these seem more in line with Shakespeare's comedies or with the late romance Cymbeline, which repeats an episode concerning rings given and surrendered against the giver's request. (Shakespeare often stole from himself, of course.)

The most prominent Merchant of Venice love story is the one involving Portia and Bassanio (Jacob Fortune-Lloyd), who wins her hand when he chooses the correct box of the three (gold, silver, lead) offered to Portia's suitors for perusal. There's also the Nerissa (Nadia Albina)-Gratiano (Ken Nwosu) alliance. Then there's the love affair featuring Lorenzo (James Corrigan) and Shylock's stolen daughter Jessica (Scarlett Brookes), who converts to Christianity--not, as Findlay and Brookes have it, without some remorse.

Findlay sometime unflinchingly, sometimes light-heartedly unfolds the intertwined tales on Johannes Schutz's simple yet sumptuous set. The floor thrusting into the audience is glossy brass as is the reflecting upstage wall. (The brass, looking like gold underlines that theme of corrupting money that Shakespeare worked.) Just in front of the wall is a shiny ball on a long cord. It's pushed with some force by Ferran when she enters as Portia. Subsequently, it swings pendulum-like throughout the play, as if unremittingly reminding the audience of time's inexorable passage.

Only occasionally are pieces of furniture brought out, as the cast members, dressed by Anette Guther in very casual contemporary clothes, go about their poetic business. Tim Samuels as Launcelot Gobbo, encountered first in the audience and engaging a patron on his right, wears a painted-on mask, but otherwise no one is further gussied up. That's unless a red party outfit Portia puts on counts as glamorous.

You could say also say that Antonio's face is decorated with tears. As the action begins, he's seen in the grip of acute sadness. Explaining his woe, he immediately establishes the high quality of the acting over which Findlay presides. Khoury's Shylock and Ferran's Portia deserve kudos and paragraphs for the range and subtlety -- and when required -- blunt anger they display. Their command of the characters' complexities is complete.

No one in the cast is less than first-rate, and that goes especially for Albina as a lovely Nerissa, Fortune-Lloyd as an unabashed Bassanio and Nwosu as an irrepressible Gratiano. Brookes and Corrigan enact their beautifully-written "on such a night as this" scene with exquisite changes of mood.

The Merchant of Venice is often considered a problem play. Findlay and associates solve whatever problem there is by memorably attacking the dilemmas head-on. Cue heavy applause.