Shylock, unacceptable face of Shakespeare?: David Lister reports on two companies who have felt impelled to alter The Merchant of Venice

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The Independent Online
LAST WEEK in Leeds an extraordinary footnote to theatrical history took place. In a room in the West Yorkshire Playhouse 70 leading members of the city's 10,000-strong Jewish community debated with the theatre's artistic director, Jude Kelly, about her decision to stage The Merchant Of Venice.

During two hours of argument with one of the top directors in the country, issues ranged from the theological to the bizarre. Two orthodox ladies questioned Shylock's spirituality and religious observance; and at one point the doctors present discussed whether it was actually possible to live after having a pound of flesh cut from the torso. A woman would, they concluded; a man probably would not.

Jude Kelly is not alone in having to justify her decision to put on the play. In London, the Royal Shakespeare Company is also presenting The Merchant Of Venice. Last Wednesday, on the arts page of a national newspaper, the Jewish playwright Arnold Wesker accused the RSC associate director David Thacker of 'making it easier for anti-Semites' in his staging of the play.

The two productions combined - while the public's attention was focused on the effect of video nasties - to raise a stranger cultural issue. Should Shakespeare's play - on this summer's GCSE syllabus - actually be taken out of the literary canon, and banned from live performance on account of its alleged racism?

In Leeds the meeting was suggested to Jude Kelly by Francine Cohen, a local writer and correspondent of the Jewish Chronicle. 'I know how Jewish people feel about the play,' she said. 'I challenged Jude: 'Why are you doing this in Leeds?' At the end of the day with this play you cannot escape the language. We don't feel comfortable with a play which has anti-Semitic language in it.'

Most directors of the play, including Sir Peter Hall who directed Dustin Hoffman - who is Jewish - in the role in the Eighties, are publicly adamant that the play is not anti-Semitic (though David Thacker believes the uncut text may be). Apologists cite Shylock's 'If you prick me do I not bleed?' speech, and the exposure of the hypocrisies of Christian Venetian society.

But any person prepared, as Shylock is, to cut a pound of flesh from a man who cannot pay his debt - sharpening his knife on stage to do so - must look evil and inhuman to a modern audience.

The directors of both current productions have striven to reinterpret one of the most politically incorrect of classical dramas. Jude Kelly's unmissable production shows a Venice full of repression and casual racism, and re-evaluates the character of Portia, played by Nichola McAuliffe, as a strong and sometimes racist woman intent on proving herself worthy of her dead father. Gary Waldhorn plays Shylock as sympathetic and resigned to the evil around him.

At the end Kelly invented a moving scene placing Shylock's daughter, Jessica, who has run away to marry a Christian, beside a Jewish menorah (ceremonial candlestick), crying inconsolably as Jewish traditional music plays.

David Thacker has gone even further. His much-praised RSC production, set in the 1980s stock market, has had lines cut and scenes reversed, changing the tenor of the play. Shylock's cry of pain for his lost child and lost money, when his daughter flees, 'My daughter, O my ducats' has gone. So have the lines: 'If I can catch him once upon the hip, I'll feed fast the ancient grudge I bear him.'

And Shylock's terror of his daughter seeing Christian masques is also changed. Instead, Jessica is lost to a rave party, and another set of values, rather than just to Christians.

Thacker's Shylock, David Calder, said yesterday: 'Whatever you do with this play it seems to be clear that Shakespeare is saying that villainy and being a Jew are synonymous. Now in a post-Holocaust period it's impossible to put that on the back burner. We agreed to see if there was a way to navigate through the play, to raise its best values to the surface. By taking those lines out we still have Shylock as a very complex character.

'For a Shakespearean audience the denouement of the play, where Shylock was made to become a Christian, would have been seen as an act of charity. But I sense that Shakespeare was very ill at ease with the social values of his time.'

Gary Waldhorn, the Leeds Shylock, who is himself Jewish, said: 'I cannot believe that someone with Shakespeare's humanity could write an anti- Semitic play, but maybe I am being nave. I believe Shylock is a human being who is pushed and pushed and one can understand his desire for revenge.'

Yesterday Arnold Wesker remained unconvinced. 'I'm absolutely against censorship,' he said, 'the play must be performed, but we must start acknowledging that this play is anti-Semitic in its impact even if not in its intention.

'Shakespeare was a commercially minded playwright who knew this was a popular villain and he was cashing in. Shylock is like no Jew that I know. It's a caricature and when you think of the enormous Jewish contribution to civilisation there's not one element in the character that suggests he has an intellect or a culture that is anything to do with Jewishness.

'David Thacker sanitised his production. But by sanitising the play you make it easier for the anti-Semite to be comfortable with it.'

Jude Kelly says: 'Shakespeare was speaking about a society that was racist and prejudiced, and laying the troubles of all that prejudice before his audience in a tremendously dramatic way.'

As it happens, the biggest single updating in the play provided the biggest irony. In the Leeds production Portia's room is dominated by a picture of her late father, the thrust being that it was to prove herself to him that she dressed up as a lawyer and humiliated Shylock in the court scene.

The picture was of the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Taylor. Lord Taylor is Jewish.

(Photograph omitted)