The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 12.2433 Wednesday, 24 October 2001
Date: Tuesday, 23 Oct 2001 17:24:51 -0400
Subject: Trevor Nunn's "The Merchant of Venice" on PBS
In its conceptual strategies and interpretive choices, Nunn's production
marks no advance whatsoever over the Miller-Olivier Merchant of 1970.
Both productions transpose the play to a later period; both present the
Venetians as shallow, effete and despicable; both whitewash Shylock;
both make the Christians uneasy at their victory over the man; both
conclude with a Jewish song and the image of a remorseful Jessica.
Refusing to acknowledge that the Christians have considerable virtues to
offset their vices, and that Shylock has considerable vices to offset
his virtues, both productions opt for a simplistic melodrama of
decadence trampling on decency. Nunn simply exaggerates these choices,
sentimentalizing Shylock to a nauseating degree. It's significant (and
depressing) that the National's approach to this play has not changed in
Nevertheless, the texture of Nunn's production is often interesting,
thanks to his talent for finding novel yet valid ways of playing a line
or a moment. If the dots, connected, do not add up to a new picture,
the process of following their connection is at least absorbing. True,
some of the moments are borrowed from other productions. Portia
flinging the hated caskets every which way when Bassanio wins her hand
is taken from John Barton's Merchant for the RSC, as is Tubal whipping
out an invoice in response to Shylock's lament about the unknown cost of
finding the thieves. Similarly, Shylock's instant precognition of his
doom upon hearing the opening word "alien" in the statute read aloud by
Portia is quietly lifted from a brilliant moment of Olivier's. Yet many
of Nunn's choices are new, at least to me: the courtroom's disgust at
the immaturity of "Balthasar;" his/her resulting nervousness and
uncertainty, increasing the tension of the Trial Scene; Shylock
provoking Salerio into attacking him on "If a Jew wrong a
Christian...;" Antonio reacting to Shylock's offer of an interest-free
loan with angry incredulity, stalking away until Shylock's protestations
of sincerity draw him back. Perhaps the most original stroke is
Portia's clear attraction to Morocco despite her racist disclaimers to
the contrary--though Nunn blunts the force of this by casting a Black
actor as Salerio and sprinkling other well-to-do Negroes among the
Venetian haut monde. This self-defeating adherence to the colorblind
ethos undermines the alienness of Morocco and the presentation of the
Christians as bigots; it also clashes with the historical and social
realities of the 1930s setting.
At times, Nunn shows a distressing tendency to impose moments on the
script, of which the most egregious example is Shylock and Jessica's
Yiddish duet. Nunn promptly compounds this imposition with another,
having Shylock slap Jessica and then pantomime groping remorse. The
slap can be justified, but not the remorse: there is nothing in the
text which allows the actor to play such a moment, and his lines become
meaningless counters in a game of fabricated drama. Nunn also cuts more
lavishly than he was wont, intent on denying the Christians most of
their moments of poetic idealization and beauty ("On such a night...").
Occasionally he plucks a line or a speech from its proper context and
shifts it to another scene, a flatly illegitimate tactic for which Orson
Welles has long since answered in the Afterlife.
Finally, Nunn's eye for casting has lost some of its erstwhile
sharpness, and his actors are a decidedly mixed bunch. Henry Goodman's
celebrated Shylock is pedestrian in every respect: it's amazing that
Nunn should have entrusted this role to so undistinguished a performer.
I did like Alex Kelly's Nerissa, Gabrielle Jourdan's Jessica and
especially Derbhle Crotty's Portia, her actor's intelligence triumphing
over a truly hideous hairstyle. Alexander Hanson's aging Bassanio (is
Portia seeking a surrogate father?) is too bland to be satisfying, while
David Bamber's bloated and mannered Antonio appears tipsy throughout.
Chu Omambala brings a raw, engaging coltishness to Morocco, but Raymond
Coulthard's Aragon is simply inept, failing to manage a Spanish accent
or a recognizable burlesque of one.
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