THEATRE / Don't bank on it: Paul Taylor on David Thacker's RSC staging of The Merchant of Venice at the Barbican, London
This creates as many problems as opportunities. After all, an aversion to money-lending is not exactly rife in such a milieu: to see young, sharp- suited Christian bankers decrying Shylock for the practice of usury is thus a little like imagining a school of piranhas puffing their gills out in holier-than-thou huffiness at the eating habits of a shark.
Thacker's aim, evidently, is to blur divisions, to indicate how the prosperity of the Christians must also be based on business dealings that wouldn't bear much scrutiny. This certainly results in a persuasively rethought conception of Shylock. Excellently played by David Calder, he comes across here as a largely assimilated Jew who at first goes into his shtik and shrugs only as a little self-parodic turn, and who later suggests the pound of flesh forfeit almost as a fanciful joke. It's when the Christians connive in the defection of his daughter that he turns ugly.
The high-finance setting is not nearly as flattering to Clifford Rose's Antonio, though; in this world, a man who lends out money gratis would be offered psychiatric treatment, not praise and support.
Seeing this production a second time, I was struck less by its interpretative gains and losses than by its inertness. Neither the banking bastion of Venice nor the more timeless world of Belmont come properly alive. In the former, people communicate by mobile phone, computer terminals flash, there's a loutish, yuppie wine bar - and it all remains stubbornly dead.
When Trevor Nunn updated Timon of Athens, another play that meditates on the discrepancies between the transactions of finance and the transactions of friendship, the shift to the milieu of the modern plutocrat afforded similarly thought-provoking distortions. But, in creating its environments, Thacker's production doesn't begin to match the texture, energy or density of the way Nunn recreated Timon's patronage-world in contemporary terms, a place where acts of bounty were turned into media-opportunities, and where intimacy was restricted to being sucked up to by fickle, free-booting hangers-on. At times, Thacker's transpositions make no sense at all. Would the bartender in a yuppie watering hole really be the one dispensing sage advice about Antonio along with the champagne?
Apart from Calder's Shylock, the great plus-points of the production are, first, Penny Downie, who, without being at all like Katharine Hepburn, gives you, as Portia, a similar sense of wit and breeding. Significantly, in the court scene, the vindictive tenacity with which she eventually pursues Shylock seems to catch her off balance, as if springing from some hidden source it momentarily fazes her to recognise. The second boon is Christopher Luscombe, who, as Launcelot Gobbo, takes one of Shakespeare's more wearisome clown-figures and, by establishing a lovely, faintly Frankie Howerd-like rapport with the audience, turns him into a comic delight.
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