After seeing the Globe’s wonderful production of The Merchant of Venice earlier this year, I wasn’t convinced that the RSC’s version, directed by Polly Findlay, would reach the same heights. When I first saw it I was underwhelmed, but since seeing it I’ve been thinking about the production and it’s really grown on me.
Johannes Schutz’s set design involves a stark, gold stage, with no further embellishment save a giant ticking pendulum. I wasn’t particularly keen on this design, but perhaps it was meant to emphasise the Venetian preoccupation with wealth? The play itself, which seemed to me to have been streamlined, sees the titular merchant Antonio (Jamie Ballard) agree to help his friend Bassanio (Jacob Fortune-Lloyd) by lending him some money. In order to do so, he has to obtain credit from the Jewish moneylender Shylock (Makram J. Khoury) on the understanding that he will pay once his ships arrive in Venice. But what if his ships don’t come in?
Meanwhile, Bassanio hopes to woo Portia, whose late father designed a lottery which all her potential suitors must face. It’s great to see Patsy Ferran in such a high profile role, and I really liked her sympathetic portrayal of the character. The casket scene with Bassanio was a particular highlight, as she tried to hint at the correct casket, even as his friend Gratiano (Ken Nwosu) tried to push him towards the gold one.
Most modern productions tend to focus on Shylock’s story, but this one did seem to place more emphasis on Portia. I think this is why I didn’t immediately warm to the production, but on reflection the more balanced approach worked well. Makram J. Khoury delivered a quietly impressive performance as Shylock, sympathetic even in his deepest rage. Antonio and Bassiano’s relationship was emphasised quite openly, the former’s love for his friend providing adequate motivation for his determination to borrow money from the man he hates – Antonio’s anti-Semitism is particularly marked, and Shylock’s determination to get his pound of flesh is, up to a point, understandable. When the verdict is delivered Antonio is forced to walk to the chair himself in order to be restrained – one of the production’s most powerful scenes.
The Merchant of Venice won’t rank as one of my favourite Shakespeare shows at the RSC, but it’s a different take that is well worth seeing.