Theatre

Wrestling with bigotry

JOHN BEMROSE,J.B. June 17 1996
Theatre

Wrestling with bigotry

JOHN BEMROSE,J.B. June 17 1996

Wrestling with bigotry

Theatre

A bold Merchant soars at Stratford

JOHN BEMROSE

He is one of the most compelling villains in literature—but he is also a Jew, and from that fact centuries of controversy have flowed. Ever since

Shylock first took up his knife to carve a pound of flesh from the chest of his debtor, Antonio, Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice has been a lightning rod for anti-Semitism and the forces that oppose it. Scholars have debated whether the play itself is the product of bigotry, and whether Shylock is truly evil or simply a victim of circumstances. And in the present era of cultural sensitivity, it has become difficult to stage Merchant at all. Many theatre companies avoid it. Many high schools no longer teach it, while for Jewish communities its performance invariably creates discomfort, at the very least.

Yet, somehow, Merchant's troubled history only makes the current production at Ontario’s Stratford Festival—a two-hour drive west of Toronto—all the more remarkable. In what is easily the finest of the festival’s five opening-week productions, director Marti Maraden has taken a play that many have concluded is anti-Semitic and turned it into a drama about anti-Semitism. She has set Merchant in the Venice of 1933—at a time when fascism and anti-Semitism were on the rise. And rather than gloss over the anti-Semitism of the play’s characters (as so well-intentioned

directors have done in the past), she has given it frank expression. Combined with an extraordinary performance from Douglas Rain as Shylock, her approach offers a Merchant in which there are no monsters, only ordinary people—nearly all of them tainted with a degree of racial prejudice.

So far, Stratford’s evenhanded Merchant seems to have been well received by those who would be expected to be most sensitive to its subject matter. Points out Bernie Färber, national director of community relations for the Canadian Jewish Congress: “It is always painful for Jews to see The Merchant of Venice because the words are there, you can’t get away from them.” But after seeing the production, Färber also acknowledged being “moved by the sensitivity shown. I was certainly much more comfortable with young people seeing this production than I have been with any in the past.”

Interestingly, the current Merchant contains at least one more example of anti-Semitism than Stratford’s 1989 version directed by

Michael Langham. Langham cut out the speech in which, during the courtroom scene, the defeated Shylock is ordered to give up his religion and become a Christian. Maraden reinstated it, apparently to good effect. Färber reports that two high-school teachers told him their students “gasped in shock” when the speech was uttered. Such awareness among students may well owe something to the educational kit about the play that the festival supplies to teachers when they order tickets—a package developed by Stratford in conjunction with the CJC. In addition, the festival’s attempts to educate the public about Merchant will include a July 21 lecture by the noted American literary critic Harold Bloom.

Yet all the attention paid to cultural and social issues would amount to little if this Merchant were not such a stunning esthetic success. Maraden, 50, has created a vision of grave, bitter beauty. The only woman director to become established at Stratford in its 43-year history—since taking leave of her

acting career in the early 1990s, she has directed nine productions at the festival—she says she first became interested in staging Merchant out of sheer contrariness. “People were saying we couldn’t do The Merchant of Venice, that the climate would not tolerate it—and that provoked me,” she recalls. Maraden reread the play and was swept away by its brilliance of thought and character. And she came to the conclusion that, while she could never know what Shakespeare’s private thoughts were about Jews, his play “contained virulent anti-Semitism, but was not in and of itself anti-Semitic.” After she got the go-ahead from Stratford’s artistic director, Richard Monette, Maraden began to consider various settings for the drama. She thought of staging it in a concentration camp, as a command performance that Jewish inmates were putting on for their guards. But she came to feel that such an approach was too obvious, and instead settled on what she calls “that time before the evil is full-blown—when people you think of as very civilized and intelligent are saying thoughtless things about people whom they perceive to be alien, to have an otherness.”

The production’s foreboding mood receives a major boost from Phillip Silver’s starkly simple grey-toned set. Massive walls slide in from the wings, to indicate the narrow passageways of Venice—or are withdrawn to reveal the more spacious country estate of Portia

(Susan Coyne). She and Shylock are the two poles of the play. Besieged by suitors, Portia can only be won by the man who correctly chooses the one small casket among three—they are made of gold, silver and lead—that holds her portrait. One of her would-be husbands, Bassanio (Paul Haddad), needs money to equip himself for the pursuit, but his friend, the merchant Antonio (Roland Hewgill), is temporarily out-of-pocket, so he guarantees a loan from his old enemy Shylock, promising that Shylock can cut a pound of flesh from his body if he cannot pay.

Maraden has groomed her cast to perfection. Among several outstanding performances, Coyne’s portrait of Portia as a good-humored, gracefully intelligent aristocrat makes her small lapses into racism and anti-Semitism all the more shocking. And in Wayne Best’s swaggering, metal-voiced Gratiano the horrors of fascism seem to be stirring. But it is in Rain’s Shylock that the production finds its heart. This, simply, is one of the great performances in Stratford’s history. In the past, it has been almost traditional to exaggerate the role of Shylock: to make him a towering, raging figure of evil or, more commonly, to play up his pathos as a noble victim, wronged by an entire society. But Rain rejects these extremes and all the florid gestures of body and voice that go with them. Clad in a simple black suit and neat white beard, his modest Shylock is a rare and perhaps unprecedented creation: he has made the old moneylender completely and believably human.

Every detail of Rain’s performance supports this effect. In Shylock’s early arguments with Antonio, Rain is marvelously restrained, as he shapes a Shylock who seems painfully torn between wanting to vent his anger and retaining his dignity as a citizen. And later, in the trial scene, his careful unfolding of the cloths that hold his knives (while all around him, the other characters are noisily arguing) shows a quietly chilling attachment to decorum and his belief in his own rightness. Shylock is a bitter man who intends evil—there is no getting around that fact—but in this production his actions have a plausible and deeply disturbing ordinariness.

And so it is with all the characters: there are no monsters here, but only plain folk whose darker side is getting a little out of hand. Maraden has not played up the fascist element too strongly: only a few subtle incidents— a waiter silently refusing a Jew a table—indicate the coming darkness. But the total effect is devastating. In this superb and complex Merchant of Venice the beautiful speeches still charm, but it is the shadows between the lines that haunt the memory. □