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The drama's outside: protests target Israeli take on Shakespeare

The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare's Globe, London

Security around the Globe to Globe Festival escalated last night, to put it mildly, when Habima, the National Theatre of Israel, presented The Merchant of Venice. These precautions are hardly surprising, given the controversy aroused by the decision to invite Habima to participate in the international Bard-binge. Nor were the peaceful, heavily policed protests outside. The pro-Palestinian contingent handed out engravings of a Shakespeare saying: "No! to Occupation & Colonisation For 'Tis Illegal Under International Law". The pro-Israeli group waved placards declaring that "Boycotts Divide".

One of the former held a scroll which proclaimed, in Arabic and English, that "All the world's a Stage but, in Ariel, Habima are not merely players."

And that's the bone of contention that has split our artistic community. This company have taken their work into Israeli settlements in the Palestinian Occupied Territories. Their defence, as expressed in this paper yesterday, is that they break through the illiberal bubble of the settlers with challenging material. But their opponents argue that they, too, have no right to be in land that does not belong to Israel and that Habima's pretensions to independence have to be weighed against the fact that they rely on the Israeli government for 30 per cent of their funding. It is an issue that has divided those close to the Globe.

Mark Rylance, its great founding director, was one of the signatories to a letter calling for the institution to withdraw its invitation. Howard Brenton, the dramatist, argued a boycott would be "a disgraceful act of censorship".

Ilan Ronen's production is, ironically, rather tame. It takes the Shakespearean idea that it is because the Christians hypocritically demonise him that Shylock turns demonic and pushes it to a sentimental extreme. From the interpolated opening in which we see carnival-masked Venetian jocks beating him up, Jacob Cohen's bushy-bearded, humane little Shylock is a figure of pathos and a reluctant revenger. The protests began early on when flags and banners saying "Israeli Apartheid Leave The Stage" were unfurled over the lower gallery.

The prompt removal of the protesters was perhaps more distracting than the gesture. There was one electrifying intervention during the trial scene when a booming voice from the yard asked: "Hath not a Palestinian eyes?" – an act of telling appropriation that for a couple of vertiginous seconds threatened to throw the production off-balance. The humilation of Shylock in this intepretation is heart-rending as he winds up harnessed to the cat's cradle of theatre-spanning ropes that have just bound Antonio, with a crucifix-chain slung over his wrist to indicate his forced conversion. It is arguable that a Shylock driven to real dangerousness would be a more devasating indictment of anti-semitism.