The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 13.0638  Monday, 4 March 2002

From:           David Evett <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>
Date:           Sunday, 3 Mar 2002 22:17:15 -0500
Subject:        RSC Merchant

Many of you are aware that the RSC has just finished a 2-week residency
at Davidson College in North Carolina.  Last week I was able to see
their highly satisfying production of *Merchant of Venice*, which
inaugurated the handsome new Duke Family Performance Hall on the
Davidson campus.  The work was directed by Loveday Ingram; she looks
about 18 in her program photo, but elicited from a mostly youthful cast,
most with no previous RSC experience, a lucid, coherent, subtle, and
provocative performance of this difficult play.  Ian Bartholomew as an
urbanely vigorous Shylock, Hermione Gulliford as a Portia testily galled
by the constraints of gender and social position, and Isabel Pollen as a
quietly desperate Jessica who in an odd way becomes the most important
figure on the stage, were particularly impressive members of a strong

Homosociality, not homosexuality, latent or otherwise, governed the
relationships of the Christian Venetians, together with a strong sense
that their social and economic entitlement made them both unable and
unwilling to understand or sympathize with alterity--Sol. and Sol.
listened courteously to "Hath not a Jew," etc., but it made no dent.
Shylock was equally imprisoned in his Jewish sense of an election based
on passive/aggressive endurance rather than active virtue; it is perhaps
worth noting that while money-lenders do run risks, the productive
outcome of their activity totally depends on the active agency of
others.  When he did break out, it was as though the removal of his
previous restraints threw him out of control: at the critical moment of
the trial scene, he was moving rapidly toward Antonio with his dagger
raised above his head, ready to kill, before Portia stepped in to

Antonio's economic failure, coupled with the absence of his only real
friend, left him vulnerable and alone--it occurred to me for the first
time to notice that Shakespeare is careful not to supply Antonio with
anybody who corresponds with Shylock's associate Tubal, and so to
suggest that the system, not the people who operate in it, is
defective.  At the end, he, but even more markedly Jessica, are caught
in the middle.  Her progressive alienation, set off by a nicely nuanced
performance by Ben Turner as a charming but inconstant Lorenzo, made the
production's final image, of this thoughtful, affectionate, unhappy
girl, downstage center in a fairly strong light, with Antonio in the
shadows up left, unexpectedly moving--more, perhaps, than the similar
but more overt image at the end of Jonathan Miller's film.

The production was not wholly sober, to be sure--the two Gobbos (we saw
the understudy for Lancelot, and I've lost the slip that gave his name,
but David Peart played the father), were funnier than most I've seen,
and Michael Gardiner made a side-splitting Prince of Aragon, complete
with lisp.  I found Paul Hickey's 40-something Bassanio weak, though
this might have been by design--a society that allows a man to live in
comfort for several decades without ever producing any useful work is
doing him and itself no favors.  His physical resemblance to the Duke of
Edinburgh may also have been part of the plan.

David Evett

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