Arts: Theatre: Loner among wastrels

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The Independent Culture
THERE AREN'T many productions of The Merchant of Venice which end with an ominous rumble of thunder as day breaks over Belmont, or with the Christian couple standing disarmed as Shylock's truant daughter Jessica launches into a piercingly nostalgic Hebrew song.

These touches are a token of the extraordinary human richness and ambiguity of this traverse-stage revival by Trevor Nunn at the Cottesloe. Where recent high-profile productions, such as the Peter Sellars LA riots version or Peter Zadek's contemporary stock market slant, have offered intriguing but doctrinaire interpretations, Nunn's wonderfully considered interpretation - set in a stylish, minimally evoked 1920s - finds liberating contradiction and complexity at every turn.

Shylock here is the magnificent Henry Goodman who, after playing so many self-hating Jews in contemporary repertoire, (Roy Cohn in Angels in America, Philip Gellburge in Arthur Miller's Broken Glass), now gets the chance to portray a man whose goal in life is not to be accepted as an honorary gentile but who winds up, in a twist of Venetian "justice", converted to Christianity.

An intense, bearded little figure in yarmulke and shawl, Shylock, the usurer, negotiates his way through a hedonistic Venice full of sponging young Jew-baiting wastrels in suits. We see him punctiliously tipping at the piazza cafe while his supposedly generous enemies show their empty pockets and leave David Bamber's depressive, Alan Bennett-like merchant, whom they furtively snigger at for his masochistic gay crushes, to pick up the tab. But Nunn's interpretation is alive to all sides. It's significant that the elderly Jew, Tubal, here quietly leaves the court in disgust at his friend's irreligious inflexibility and equally significant that this superbly active Shylock has to overcome such trembling inner revulsion.

But you wonder whether Derbhle Crotty's captivating Portia needs to intervene to forestall his second knife-brandishing attempt. There's a splendid moment when this disguised Portia, trying to worsen Shylock's legal predicament has the grace to stumble on the world "mercy" when she tells him his life lies "in the mercy" of the duke. Having so recently sung the praises of this virtue, she is now not so prompt to practise it. When the court rules that he must convert, Shylock's reaction scathingly parodies the obscene black comedy of the stipulation. He removes his skullcap with a "howzat" flourish and then, pointedly glaring at Antonio, dumps them in one dish of his weighing scales. They might as well, this gesture indicates, have taken a pound of his flesh.

The painful conflicts in the Jew's relationship with his daughter are also beautifully communicated.Leaving her in charge of his house, Goodman's Shylock works himself up into such a state of apprehension that he strikes her a shocking but pathetic expression of his anxious love.

It's a gesture that gives the audience a sudden desolate glimpse of the life of a lonely, desperately over-protective and culturally besieged widower. Insights of such quality make this Merchant a deeply rewarding experience.

Till 11 Sept, 0171-452 3000