In Review

The Merchant of Venice: ‘utterly tragic, yet simultaneously mesmerising’

This Shakespeare’s Globe production is set in contemporary London

In her “brilliant and uncompromising” staging of The Merchant of Venice, Abigail Graham never shies away from what this play is really about, said Oliver Ainley on What’s on Stage. Namely: “a group of entitled and pompous villains mercilessly persecuting a Jewish man”.

Set in contemporary London, the production opens with Bassiano and other City boys forcing Launcelot, Shylock’s ex-servant, to down a shot every time he says the word “Jew”. Then, in the final scene, as the Christians celebrate their court triumph, their dialogue fades and is drowned out by a mournful Hebrew lament. In this way, the happy-ever-after ending, with the restoration of rings to their rightful owners, is ripped away and our attention is focused on Jessica and Shylock, her destroyed father. “It is utterly tragic, yet simultaneously mesmerising.”

Shylock is played by Adrian Schiller with “heart-wrenching” dignity, said Kate Wyver in The Guardian. His is no “miserly, comic stereotype”, said Donald Hutera in The Times; he is a “sober, considered and much abused figure” who has grown accustomed to the constant vitriol he faces, and who is able to keep his emotions in check. Although Schiller “never begs for it, our sympathy lies unwaveringly” with the moneylender. And while some purists may object to the way Graham has made this unambiguously “Shylock’s show”, the fact is: “it works”.

I disagree, said Marianka Swain in The Daily Telegraph. Graham’s approach is “conceptually interesting”, but “in taking such pains to humanise” Shylock, she “renders everyone else monstrous” and therefore dull. Antonio comes across as a “one-note, white-supremacist thug” and even Portia (Sophie Melville) is “openly racist”, though we’re “left in no doubt that she is a grim victim of the patriarchy”.

It’s all a bit confusing and dissonant, said Andrzej Lukowski in Time Out. It does “pay off with that stupendous final scene, a suffocating wave of anti-Semitic horror. But it’s a bumpy journey to get there.”

Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, Shakespeare’s Globe. Until 9 April 

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