Race on the Rialto

THEATRE The Merchant of Venice Birmingham Repertory Theatre
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The Independent Culture
In 1988, Bill Alexander directed an RSC version of The Merchant of Venice with Antony Sher as a flamboyantly Levantine Shylock in a city where Christians literally spat racial hatred and where a Yellow Star of David was eventually sprayed, like some prefiguration of the Holocaust, on the back wall. Returning to the play now, Alexander happily avoids what has become the orthodoxy in the interim, of re-locating The Merchant in the world of modern banking. Presenting a genial, broadly assimilated City of London Shylock always raised more problems than it solved. For a start, Christian yuppies aren't ideally placed to look down their noses at usury. And, if Shylock has integrated so successfully, why does he declare anti-Christian loathing in his first scene?

Set in period, in a dark, sinister Venice whose vistas are framed by decaying brick pillars, Alexander's new staging has the great merit of keeping your feelings fluid throughout. Precisely because he makes no overt bid for audience sympathy, David Schofield's splendid, heavily accented and sardonically humorous Shylock becomes a moving (yet never pathetic) figure. He's played here as rebarbatively hard and precise - so punctilious he even remembers to brush his knees after collapsing at the news of his daughter's abscondment; so meticulously well-briefed he doesn't need to look at the bond when forced to check its details, he just scrolls through it silently in his head.

But this staging also amplifies our sense of the routine intimidations Shylock has to cope with. Salerio and Solanio mockingly impersonate his brief under his very window and kick at the door in a frenzy of contempt. Every time he steps outside, there's danger in the air; and you can understand Shylock's behaviour, in this performance, as a warped exercise in standing on his dignity. Even when he has to pick himself up from the wreckage of the court case and brave the boors at the exit, Schofield manages to keep a straight back and a measured tread.

Cathy Tyson is a warm, appealing heroine but it's good that she does not downplay the fact that, with Shylock, Portia egregiously fails to practise what she has only just been preaching about mercy. In the final act, she reveals a cropped head to Charles Edwards's excellent, anxious Bassanio, who strokes the boyish curls in some bemusement, as if this haircut obscurely complicates his emotional graduation from male friendship with Don Warrington's absurdly plummy Antonio to marriage with her.

I had thought that my days of laughing at those tedious Gobbos were over, but here both father and son are played in a West Indian accent and in what looks like a bizarre, expertly organised identity crisis by the rasta-locked Jah-Man Aggrey. Martin Hutson also makes a big impact as the Prince of Aragon.

The evening ends on an uneasy note. After the other couples have trooped into Portia's house, Shylock's daughter finds herself alone in the garden with Antonio, who throws her a look of profound distaste. Beginning with a girl who is trapped by the dictates of her father's will, the play ends, in this account, with a girl doomed to carry the burden of her father's sins.

Birmingham Rep (0121-236 4455) to 8 March