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Home :: Archive :: 2011 :: July ::
Merchant of Venice in a Las Vegas Setting


The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 22.0148  Friday, 8 July 2011

[1] From:     John Drakakis < This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it >
      Date:      July 7, 2011 2:14:27 PM EDT
      Subj:      Re: MV

[2] From:     John W Kennedy < This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it >
      Date:      July 7, 2011 3:10:32 PM EDT
      Subj:      Re: MV

[3] From:     Todd M.Lidh < This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it >
      Date:      July 7, 2011 4:35:17 PM EDT
      Subj:      Re: MV

[4] From:     Abigail Quart < This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it >
      Date:      July 8, 2011 1:59:16 AM EDT
      Subj:      RE: MV


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:         John Drakakis < This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it >
Date:         July 7, 2011 2:14:27 PM EDT
Subject:      Re: MV

I’ve just come back from Stratford and managed to get to see The Merchant of Venice.

I have seen plenty of confused RSC productions over the years but this one takes the biscuit. Lancelet is played as an Elvis Presley lookalike who bursts into song (mainly Lieber and Stoller) at the shake of a hip, and the final tableau is of everybody standing around on the stage while we have a rendering of Presley’s ‘Are you lonesome tonight’. The setting is Las Vegas, the Three Caskets scene is played out as though it were a TV quiz show ‘Destiny’, and poor Patrick Stewart looks as though he would rather be somewhere on the starship Enterprise patrolling an alien galaxy.  He dons a prayer shawl for the trial scene, a gesture (one of a few) to his Jewishness (Bogdanov’s production of a few years ago does it far better and is far more thoughtful), and he capitulates at the end almost, I suspect, in relief that he can now leave the stage and let this bunch of Venetian halfwits with cod urban American accents get on with it.

The only ‘tragedy’ in this play is that the tax payer’s money has been thoroughly wasted . . . and, what’s more, the programme contains a load of recycled populist twaddle from the ubiquitous reactionary Niall Fergusson, and a piece by Linda Levy Peck that purports to be on ‘cultural materialism’ but turns out to do nothing more than a fetishization of the commodity! (she doesn’t know the difference!) There is one small mercy . . . the main theatre is so effectively soundproofed that you can’t hear the fatuous nonsense going on the main stage if you are in the Swan where there is, by contrast, an excellent production of Massinger’s The City Madam.
 
Yours in shock,
John Drakakis
 
[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:         John W Kennedy < This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it >
Date:         July 7, 2011 3:10:32 PM EDT
Subject:      Re: MV

From: Stuart Manger < This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it >

>Quick questions for subscribers prompted by the UK production of
>MoV with Patrick Stewart as Shylock:
>
>[a] Can you recall any setting for a major Shakespeare play that
>you have seen or heard of which would so seriously mitigate
>against the text that it would invalidate the design and damage
>the play?

I don't like cognitive dissonance in general. I have always been annoyed by productions of "Hamlet", for example, in which the final duel does not employ left-handed daggers. I am willing to accept a much greater latitude in the Greek plays because Shakespeare, to be frank, didn't really have much of a feel for Greek culture. Even so, when my very sensible wife wished to apply the story of Timon to Bush's Panic, she chose to write her own play, "Timon of Manhattan".

>[b] More specifically, why is that when MoV is discussed, the
>role of Shylock is almost always the only topic of debate while
>the play itself is manifestly not about him primarily?

The history of anti-Semitism, even before Herr Hitler came along, was a nasty one, and a common source of shame to Christian and post-Christian intellectuals at least since the Enlightenment. And "The Merchant of Venice", let there be no mistake about it, is an anti-Semitic play. It is not primarily so, because, as you say, the play isn't about Shylock to begin with, and, furthermore, Shakespeare, being Shakespeare, could not make a pure beast of the man, or even such a creature of pure rage as Barabas is, but he still makes us uncomfortable, and that makes a mighty sharp pebble in our bardolatrous shoe. What right has Shakespeare to be imperfect, anyway? (Like Jesus and George Washington before and after him, he falls into the trap, pointed out by Sayers, of not being "really real".)

(A spur-of-the-moment inspiration: computer-animation people speak of the "uncanny valley", the degree of near realism found in "The Polar Express" or "Beowulf" that seems somehow "creepy" when compared with the obviously cartoonish human figures seen in, say, the "Toy Story" movies. Is Shylock something somehow analogous?)

[3]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:         Todd M.Lidh < This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it >
Date:         July 7, 2011 4:35:17 PM EDT
Subject:      Re: MV

Hardy,

Let me echo your sentiments about the DC Shakespeare production of MERCHANT. While I was already a bit skeptical of seeing a production set in Little Italy, I was actually more upset by both the "tradgedization" of Shylock and the complete lack of support for so many readings of character, most notably Jessica and Lorenzo. For no reason (none given, certainly), the two arrived at Belmont estranged (and one of them pregnant), and that strained relationship lasted the rest of the play. As I said to my wife driving home, the actors were told to ignore the words they were saying and act a director-choice performance. Unacceptable.

While I enjoyed the set design, costumes and some acting (but not all, to be sure), I left that production asking how so many talented people could make a Shakespearean comedy so completely uncomic.

I'm glad to know I wasn't alone in my reaction.

Todd M. Lidh
Director of the First-Year Experience and Clinical Assistant Professor of English
The Catholic University of America

[Editor’s Note: You reminded of another house style element at the Shakespeare Theatre I find objectionable—having a couple of kids run around the stage before the dialogue begins and appearing throughout the production—it might have worked with one kid in the Adrian Noble MND—but I cannot name the number of productions I have seen using this tired convention, beginning with the All’s Well with Kelly McGillis in the 1980s. –Hardy Cook]

[4]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:         Abigail Quart < This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it >
Date:         July 8, 2011 1:59:16 AM EDT
Subject:      RE: MV

>[a] Can you recall any setting for a major Shakespeare play that
>you have seen or heard of which would so seriously mitigate
>against the text that it would invalidate the design and damage
>the play?
 
Nothing damages the play. The worst sets, the most egregious miscasting, cuts, additions, concept and/or costume catastrophes, may make for dull or bemusing evenings, but after the production is over and the stage is swept, the play returns to its text, inviolate, a born-again virgin EVERY SINGLE TIME. Frankly, I enjoy the horrors. The make me notice moments and characters I tend to miss in less-flawed enterprises.
 
>[b] More specifically, why is that when MoV is discussed, the
>role of Shylock is almost always the only topic of debate while
>the play itself is manifestly not about him primarily?

We tend to think we focus on Shylock because he's the Great Other, The Jew, and there are Ph.D's yet to be achieved discussing him and his relation to god-knows-what anywhere.
 
But to me he's the only truly passionate being in a play full of shallow jerks. The others live day to day and their loves, such as they can muster, are new and untried. Portia? She is Shylock's dispassionate antithesis. What does she care deeply about? But Shylock feels with thousands of years of rejection and pain and persecution and grief and loss oozing out of every word, deed, pore. He has the fascination of an active volcano.
 
Whatever happens in Merchant of Venice, all the characters but Shylock will have forgotten it by tomorrow. Why would anyone bother with them?

[Editor’s Note: “Frankly, I enjoy the horrors. The make me notice moments and characters I tend to miss in less-flawed enterprises.” I used to feel this way, but approaching 50 years of play going has decreased my patience for the misguided, to be kind. –Hardy Cook]

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