A Merchant of a surprising cast

Peter Zadek's latest production of The Merchant of Venice comes complete with a blond, blue-eyed Shylock.

Imagine a young theatre director in mid-1950s Pontypridd looking out of his window, watching miners with their lamps on their way to work, then returning, their faces black with coal-dust. Why, he asks himself, aren't they coming to my theatre to see plays by Cocteau?

In round-rimmed shades and a scruffy black T-shirt, Peter Zadek looks many years younger than his distinguished 69. He's in Britain to prepare for the Edinburgh opening of his Berliner Ensemble production of The Merchant of Venice, and it's odd to think that this epitome of relaxed internationalism cut his teeth in darkest Wales. He has no illusions about those Pontypridd days: "The miners weren't bloody interested in what I was doing, and there was no reason why they should be."

Zadek at least had quantitative success in Wales; he put on a play a week for a year there. Then, in 1958, after 25 years in Britain, he moved to Germany, where one of the first plays he did was The Merchant. He mounted another one 14 years later, in the industrial town of Bochum. It reminded him of Wales.

"This time I wouldn't make the same mistake - I'd get into the theatre the audience who should be in it. I did a popular revue-type show, which carried the theatre for five years, and gave me the courage to do Shakespeare in a very open and popular way."

His Shylock was the Nazi caricature of a Jew: a long-nosed, rat-like figure shorn of any redemptive features: it was a daring move.

"I discovered that the more horrible you made Shylock, the more sympathy you got from the audience." Zadek calls this "the trick of the play".

The Merchant has long preoccupied Zadek, a Jew and today considered one of the top directors working in the German-speaking world (he has a British passport). Zadek's current production opened in Vienna in 1988. The trick this time has been to make Shylock as un-Jewish as possible.

He is played by Gert Voss, who has become an Edinburgh stalwart over the last three years: he was Peter Stein's Antony in Julius Caesar in 1993, Zadek's Antony in Antony and Cleopatra last year, and is also appearing in a Schaubauhne production of Guitry's The Illusionist this year.

"Voss," says Zadek, "is a good-looking German from Hamburg, with blue eyes. When he does Shylock, you listen to what he says in a completely different way. You realise this is a play about money, revenge, racial hatred - with enormous irony and humour. Those are the strengths of his character."

Zadek's new Merchant depicts a homogenised society where the fastest on his feet, and on the vodafone, wins. Jews are assimilated, not victims.

The scenario stems from Zadek's early childhood in Berlin, where he was born to comfortably-off and completely assimilated Jewish parents. His mother underestimated Hitler's staying power, and had to be tricked into leaving Germany by her husband, a travelling salesman who knew England well.

The Zadeks arrived in London in 1933. Peter was six. He was brought up in Hampstead Garden Suburb and got a languages scholarship to Oxford at the age of 17. Then something very odd happened.

"The scholarship was for Jesus College. But they didn't take me, as their 'Jewish quota' was full. This was at the beginning of the war, note, when the British were fighting the Germans: and many colleges had their 'Jewish quotas'. At 17, you're not clever enough to say, 'Well, if they're like that, I'm not going.' So I did the exam the next year, and went up to St John's."

Zadek was part of a gilded generation: this was the wartime Oxford of Peter Brook, Kenneth Tynan, Richard Burton. Zadek learnt his Shakespeare at Neville Coghill's feet, but never took his degree. The Old Vic directors' course in 1946 proved irresistible.

Over the next 11 years, Zadek worked in BBC Arts under Huw Wheldon, and got himself a name for stagings in what he calls the "absurd area" - Ionesco and Albee. He did a spicy premiere of Genet's The Balcony before its first Paris production - at the Arts Theatre, London, in 1957, and was nearly murdered for his pains.

"Genet didn't like what he saw in rehearsal. I arrived one day to find him sitting on stage with a revolver. He was going to shoot me. He was banned from the theatre, and the show went on to be an immense success."

In post-war British theatre there was probably room for only one enfant terrible called Peter. Brook had made an immediate splash; Zadek was less sure of himself. He didn't want to be part of the refugee world, but didn't fit in with the arts establishment either.

"I tried, but I wasn't good at it. I had a lot of problems, but I'm like that - always looking for round holes into which to fit my square pegs."

Without his family - he had had two children with his first wife - he moved back to Germany, and soon teamed up with a brilliant theatre manager, Kurt Hubner, and designer Wilfred Minks. Zadek still works with the latter, who is responsible for this Merchant set.

Over the next three decades, Zadek's reputation as an adventurous director of Shakespeare grew, particularly at the Hamburg Schauspielhaus, where he was in charge from 1985-89. He also did the first European version of Sobol's Ghetto there, to great acclaim.

In 1992, he returned to Berlin as co-director of Brecht's old company. From here came Antony and Cleopatra as well as a fascinating production of Pinter's Moonlight. But the relationship has not lasted. Zadek left the Ensemble earlier this year in a public dispute with his co-director Heiner Muller over the theatre's "anti-West" political stance.

"Things are very hysterical in Berlin now," Zadek says. "The climate has deteriorated since reunification, not just inside the theatre but all over town. Audiences, young ones especially, are only interested if you shout at them. It's all become extremely propagandistic, brutal and vulgar."

Zadek's sing-song Oxford accent, rather surprising for a man who worked so long in German (he lives in Italy with novelist Elisabeth Plessen), does perhaps recall another theatre age. Yet his star still shines very bright: he is about to direct The Cherry Orchard in Vienna, with a cast he says he's been waiting for for 10 years. What keeps him working?

"All I'm interested in is actors, and stories about people. I don't want to persuade an audience to believe in this or that. With a good production and an audience a thousand strong, there will be a thousand opinions. If those thousand opinions become one, then I'm very unhappy."

n 'The Merchant of Venice', today and tomorrow, Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh. Bookings: 0131-225 5756

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Feeling all at sea: Barbara's 18-year-old son came under the influence of a Canadian libertarian preacher – and she had to fight to win him back
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Living the high life: Anne Robinson enjoys some skip-surfed soup
TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
Doctor Who and Missy in the Doctor Who series 8 finale

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
    Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

    Why are we addicted to theme parks?

    Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
    Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

    Iran is opening up again to tourists

    After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
    10 best PS4 games

    10 best PS4 games

    Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
    Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

    Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

    Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
    Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

    ‘Can we really just turn away?’

    Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

    ... and not just because of Isis vandalism
    Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

    Girl on a Plane

    An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent