First Night: Nunn's richly rewarding `Merchant'

The Merchant Of Venice Cottesloe Theatre London
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THERE AREN'T many productions of The Merchant of Venice that end with an ominous rumble of thunder as day breaks over Belmont, nor with the Christian couples standing in puzzled silence as Jessica, Shylock's turncoat daughter, launches into a beautiful nostalgic Hebrew song, while guiltily clutching the deed of gift her father has sent which grants her all his possessions after his death.

These touches are a token of the extraordinary human richness of Trevor Nunn's traverse-stage revival of this controversial play at the Cottesloe. Where other recent high-profile productions, have offered intriguing but doctrinaire interpretations, Nunn's wonderfully detailed and considered account - set in a stylish, minimally evoked 1920s - finds a liberating contradiction and complexity at every turn.

The Shylock here is the magnificent Henry Goodman who, after playing so many prominent self-hating Jews in the contemporary repertoire (Roy Cohn in Angels in America, Phillip Gellburg in Arthur Miller's Broken Glass) now gets the chance to portray a Jew whose goal in life most certainly isn't to be accepted as an honorary Gentile but who winds up, in the final sick twist of Venetian justice, being forced to convert to Christianity.

An intense little bearded figure, he negotiates a hedonistic Venice full of sponging young Jew-baiting wastrels. In a nice little touch, we see him leaving a tip at the Piazza Cafe, while his Christian enemies pull out empty pockets, leaving David Bamber's Merchant - sniggered at behind his back for his masochistic gay yearnings - to pick up the tab.

This is a Venice where Launcelot Gobbo's famous routine about the fight between his conscience and the fiend becomes (shades of Cabaret) a romping anti-Semitic nightclub turn into which Goodman's baffled Shylock unwittingly blunders on the way to his appointment with the Christians.

Nunn's interpretation of the play is everywhere subtle and alive to all sides. It's significant that Shylock's Jewish friend, Tubal, here leaves the court in disgust at his irreligious inflexibility, and equally significant that this superb Shylock has to overcome such trembling revulsion that you wonder whether Derbhle Crotty's captivating Portia needs to intervene to forestall his second knife-wielding attempt.

There is a splendid moment when this disguised Portia, trying to complicate Shylock's legal predicament, has the grace to stumble on the word "mercy", when she tells him his life lies "in the mercy" of the Duke. As one who has so recently been proclaiming the virtues of mercy, she needs to sweep this registered anomaly aside.

All told, this Merchant is a terrifically rewarding experience.

Paul Taylor