Critics' Awards 1999 - Theatre: Hail to a Goodman and true

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The Independent Culture
It must be a moment to savour. As Henry Goodman prepares to make his entrance, three scenes into The Merchant of Venice, he knows that - if the last six months is anything to go by - he only has to speak four pretty familiar words and he has got 'em. More than a thousand people are about to eat out of his hand for two and a half hours.

There has been some stellar competition in 1999: from Peter O'Toole's Jeffrey Bernard and Eddie Izzard's Lenny Bruce to Antony Sher's Macbeth and Stephen Dillane's Stoppardian playwright in The Real Thing; from Klaus Maria Brandauer's Speer and Ian McDiarmid's Jew of Malta to Glenne Headly in Aunt Dan and Lemon and Geraldine McEwan in Hay Fever. But Goodman's Shylock is the performance of the year in the production of the year.

He enters, stands still, and considers: "Three thousand ducats", then takes the slightest of pauses, for a good-humoured shrug, and adds "Well". His thick middle-European accent ensures we are in no doubt that he is a Jew who has not assimilated. He's a spruce figure, with quick grins, rapid thought-processes and glinting charm. Inside every Shylock there's the trace of a theatrical archetype: the villain, the loner, the angry dad, even - recently at the RSC - the panto dame. One glance at the silver- topped cane that Goodman props by his chair in the Venetian cafe and we get a hint of a song-and-dance man. From the outset, this is a Shylock we like.

The two great illusionists who have appeared on the London stage this year are the sleight-of-hand artist Ricky Jay and Goodman. Most performances are double-barrelled events: we are watching two names - the character's and the actor's - at the same time. Only rarely does the actor vanish inside the character. The two times I've seen Goodman's performance as Shylock I haven't caught a glimpse of the man who'd played Nathan Detroit in Guys and Dolls or Freud in Hysteria or Roy Cohn in Angels in America. His Shylock has other actors reaching for superlatives too. In The Independent on Sunday Corin Redgrave called it "a once-in-a-lifetime performance".

It has taken about as long. When it comes to homework, Goodman has put in the hours, with the roots of his performance going back to his childhood when he was chased down East End streets by youths with dogs ("You killed Jesus! You yella yid!") to playing the role in his 20s when he was an actor in South Africa. Two years ago Trevor Nunn suggested he play the role at the National, and the time since then has given Goodman plenty of opportunity to mug up his James Shapiro, Hannah Arendt, Cecil Roth and Harold Bloom. He's solid on Shakespeare and the Jews, The Jew as Pariah, The Jews of Venice and The Invention of the Human.

The number of people who have been directed by Trevor Nunn is approximately the number of people who have seen his productions. Nunn directs the audience: where it looks, what it sees and how it might reasonably respond. A critic couldn't help thinking, as he trailed from production to another in 1999, that Nunn had taken out the only library copy of How To Tell Stories On Stage. Either that, or judging from his ensemble work this year at the National with The Merchant of Venice, Troilus and Cressida and Summerfolk, he hangs out with cognitive psychologists, specialising in the way the mind receives and digests narrative.

The biggest piece of baggage an audience brings to a performance of The Merchant of Venice is a fancy little item known as Post-Holocaust Sensibility. We are more than usually edgy about the subject matter. Nunn and Goodman had discussed this from the beginning. This Merchant may be set set in a Cabaret-style world in the 1920s but Goodman keeps an ancient culture alive in the present. There are no jackboots, but we have a clear idea where this kind of anti-semitism leads.

Everyone in rehearsals knew that the Nunn/Goodman approach was this-is- a-human story. Shylock the money-lender takes second place to Shylock the single parent with a teenage daughter. There's a silver-framed photograph on a small table of Leah, his dead wife. Shylock is deeply religious, sings psalms, and speaks yiddish to his daughter. If characters had their biographies printed in the programme, this upright citizen, with his neat beard, yamalka and three-piece suit, would no doubt be a trustee of several reputable Jewish charities. In his first scene he extends the hand of friendship to the Christians. He hits on the idea of the bond as a piece of whimsy. Only when his daughter disappears, with the help of the Christians, does he look for revenge.

His fierce protective relationship with his daughter Jessica is central. A defining moment comes when he slaps her. It's characteristic of Goodman's approach that the action was never premeditated. It was a complete shock for the actress Gabrielle Jourdan and brought tears to her eyes. It still does. This combination of exhaustive research and absolute trust in his instincts gives enormous range to Goodman's Shylock, taking us from the chuckling self-confidence of the businessman, to the violent discipline of the single parent, to the emotional wreck down at the quayside, who looks as if he has shrunk after the departure of his daughter. From then on, he hardens into the isolated warrior, fighting his way bitterly through the 40-minute trial. His final humiliated words are: "I am content." Events in the play may have done him little justice, but Shylock has received magnificent treatment at the hands of Goodman and Nunn. The evening itself is a work of art.

`Merchant of Venice': in rep at the RNT Olivier, SE1 (0171 452 3000)

Previous winners

Best play

1991 Blue Angels (Pam Gems, RSC)

1992 Someone Who'll Look After Me (Frank McGuinness,

Hampstead Theatre)

1993 Arcadia (Tom Stoppard, National Theatre)

1994 Pentecost (David Edgar,

The Other Place)

1995 The Phoenician Women (Euripides, The Other Place)

1996 Art (Yasmina Reza,


1997 Closer (Patrick Marber, National Theatre)

1998 Copenhagen (Michael Frayn, National Theatre)

Best actor

1991 Nigel Hawthorne in

National Theatre's The Madness

of George III

1992 Simon Russell Beale in RSC's Richard III, and Barrie Rutter in Northern Broadsides' Richard III

1993 Robert Stephens in RSC's

King Lear

1994 Alex Jennings in RSC's

Peer Gynt

1995 Diana Rigg in National Theatre's Mother Courage and her Children

1996 Ken Stott in The Young Vic's The Misanthrope

1997 Ian Holm in National Theatre's King Lear

1998 Kevin Spacey in the Almeida's The Iceman Cometh