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

Arts and Entertainment
Loaded weapon: drugs have surprise side effects for Scarlett Johansson in Luc Besson’s ‘Lucy’
film
Arts and Entertainment
Novelist Martin Amis at The Times Cheltenham Literature Festival

books
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'

After giving gay film R-rating despite no sex or violence

film
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Williams will be given a 'meaningful remembrance' at the Emmy Awards

film
Arts and Entertainment

tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
'The Great British Bake Off' showcases food at its most sumptuous
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Cliff Richard performs at the Ziggo Dome in Amsterdam on 17 May 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Educating the East End returns to Channel 4 this autumn

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch will voice Shere Khan in Andy Serkis' movie take on The Jungle Book

film
Arts and Entertainment
DJ Calvin Harris performs at the iHeartRadio Music Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush

music
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Mark Crown, DJ Locksmith and Amir Amor of Rudimental performing on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park, Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison star in political comedy The Thick of IT

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judy Murray said she

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Seoul singer G-Dragon could lead the invasion as South Korea has its sights set on Western markets
music
Arts and Entertainment
Gary Lineker at the UK Premiere of 'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Bale as Batman in a scene from
film
Arts and Entertainment
Johhny Cash in 1969
musicDyess Colony, where singer grew up in Depression-era Arkansas, opens to the public
Arts and Entertainment
Army dreamers: Randy Couture, Sylvester Stallone, Dolph Lundgren and Jason Statham
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off 2014 contestants
tvReview: It's not going to set the comedy world alight but it's a gentle evening watch
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

    Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

    The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
    Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

    Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

    A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
    Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

    Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

    Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
    Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

    Nick Clegg the movie

    Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
    Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

    Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

    Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
    Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

    Waxing lyrical

    Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
    Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

    Revealed (to the minute)

    The precise time when impressionism was born
    From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

    Make the most of British tomatoes

    The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
    10 best men's skincare products

    Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

    Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
    Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

    Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

    The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
    La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

    Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

    Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
    Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
    Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

    Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

    Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
    Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
    Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

    Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

    Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape