Merchant's bilingual japes

Edinburgh Festival: Theatre; BERLINER ENSEMBLE Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh
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The Independent Culture
Time is money in the hi-tech modern banking world in which Peter Zadek sets his Berliner Ensemble production of The Merchant of Venice. So if you don't like his interpretation of the play, you can at least take consolation from the fact that it goes about its business with uncommon speed, borne along by the rapid, no-nonsense gabble of the sharp-suited yuppies with which it is peopled.

It's a pity, though, that Zadek's pointed updating (first seen in Vienna in 1988) has taken so long to reach Britain: watching it, audiences here are likely to experience a strong sense of deja vu. David Thacker's 1993 Merchant for the RSC staked out much the same imaginative terrain - contemporary financial milieu, cut-throat Christian traders, a largely assimilated Shylock - and raised very similar problems.

An aversion to money-lending for profit is, after all, not exactly rife in the banking community, so the Christians' moral objection to Shylock on those grounds is simply untenable: it would make as much sense for a school of piranhas to get uppity about the mealtime habits of a shark. Even more so than Thacker's, Zadek's production goes out of its way to blur racial distinctions. Gert Voss's compelling Shylock is fair-haired and blue-eyed and, in his overcoat, hat and brolly, the sartorial twin of Ignaz Kirchner's Antonio. When he proposes the pound-of-flesh bond, it's in an ironic, casual manner, a piece of black-joke fancifulness like threatening to have a rival's balls on a plate if they don't pay up. Only when his daughter Jessica treacherously defects does a genuine desire for vengeance stir him.

Zadek's angle on Shylock - the character's studied blending-in with his surroundings; the fact that his tidy-minded, business-like insistence on the forfeit is so clearly a compensation for paternal anguish - imposes an almost ostentatious unshowiness on the actor playing him.

It could so easily result in dullness. Fortunately, the charismatic Voss, who was such a wonderfully rumpled, self-debunking Antony in Zadek's Antony and Cleopatra last year, has the power to make the low-key enthralling. When ordered by the court to give half his goods to his victim and half to the state, Voss's Shylock promptly kneels down and, pressing against the floor, writes out two cheques in a breathtakingly calm, orderly fashion, glancing at his watch to check the date. He's powerless now except in this one spellbinding respect of being able to dictate the rhythm of the scene.

By the logic of his reading, Zadek should have done more, you feel, to minimise the difference between a monetarist Venice and a Belmont where Portia could be seen as a young woman who is effectively held hostage to her dead father's wealth. But though Paulus Manker's pony-tailed, smugly on-the-make Bassanio hovers over the three caskets like some ludicrously indecisive contestant in a big-bucks game show, opportunities are missed and, indeed, until the trial scene, where she becomes subdued and anxious, Eva Mattes is one of the least neurotic Portias I have seen.

There are one or two very funny moments, such as at the end when Antonio is left playing gooseberry during an outbreak of snogging that even includes a pair of male bankers. But, for resolutely mirth-free "humour", the bilingual japes of the Gobbos (Urs Hefti and Uwe Bohm) must be the pick of the Festival.

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