THEATRE / Don't bank on it: Paul Taylor on David Thacker's RSC staging of The Merchant of Venice at the Barbican, London
Monday 11 April 1994
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.
Booking: 071-638 8891
Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air
Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression
Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awardsTheatre
Grace DentChannel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Alan Rickman admits editing 'terrible' script with friends in Pizza Hut behind backs of writers on Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves
- 2 18th century sex toy found in 'toilet of sword fighting school' in Poland
- 3 US? China? India? The 10 biggest economies in 2030 will be...
- 4 'I wish my teacher knew...': Young students share their 'heartbreaking' worries in notes
- 5 Rebecca Francis accuses Ricky Gervais of using 'influence' to target female hunters after receiving barrage of death threats
Better Call Saul creator Peter Gould on the creative concerns of a prequel, season 2 and the mind-numbing realities of the small courts
Britain's Got Talent 2015: RSPCA investigating Marc Metral's miming dog after cruelty complaints
Doctor Who film will definitely happen, leaked Sony emails reveal
Glastonbury 2015 tickets: How to make sure you’re successful in Sunday's re-sale
The Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice trailer has leaked – watch
The only black face in the Ukip manifesto is on the page about overseas aid
If I’m being racially abused I don’t need a stranger with a saviour complex to rescue me
Ukip is the only main political party to not address LGBT rights in its manifesto
Food banks: One million Britons will soon be using them, according to Trussell Trust
BBC election debate: The one photo that summed up the whole 90-minute leaders debate
Religion isn't growing, it is becoming vigorous in its demise, says philosopher AC Grayling