I taught The Merchant of Venice for years as an English literature text, first to O level students and later for GCSE. Few of my English teacher colleagues would touch it because they said that the play was antisemitic and they couldn’t possibly share it with students. They wouldn’t do Henry V either, another play I love and taught a lot because they said it promoted warmongering — which it doesn’t. Fortunately, for them, public examination syllabuses always offer a choice.
So with all this controversy in mind I was delighted to hear that Giles Foreman (of the Giles Foreman Centre for Acting, which I featured in The Stage recently) was directing The Merchant of Venice with his students and hurried off to Chelsea Theatre to see what they’d made of it.
The Merchant of Venice is not, contrary to common belief, a racist play. Neither is it remotely antisemitic, although of course it explores both issues extensively. And anyone who categorises it as a comedy, whatever tradition dictates, clearly hasn’t read the play properly.
This version by fifteen students, a term and a half into their one year course at GFCA, stresses both Shylock’s tragedy and Jessica’s, and makes it very clear that every single character is, to an extent, self-interestedly on the make.
Never before, for example, have I seen a production which solves the Lorenzo and Jessica puzzle so effectively. Greg Blackford’s Lorenzo wants Jessica (Mona Khalili) for her money and, having got it, treats her like dirt. The “on such a night as this” scene in Act 5 has him raping her, growling the lines while she throws them back in bitter irony. Blackford gives us a glitteringly unpleasant Lorenzo and Khalili makes a fine job of the abused woman who has made a terrible mistake and is full of regrets and, perhaps, even remorse.
Alexander Israel is outstanding as Shylock. His grating estuary accent and staring, often troubled, eyes pack a terrific punch.
Foreman certainly has some unusual, thought-provoking views of the play. Yes, he gives us the usual homoerotic undertones to explain the rapport between Antonio (Rodrigo Penalosa) and Bassanio (Max Reynard) and the rather charged camaraderie amongst the other men. He also sees Lancelot Gobbo (Adam Wright — nice voice work) as a sinister manipulator and bully, especially of Jessica.
The modern setting comes off well too, with lots of business with phones. Having the account of Shylock’s “my daughter and my ducats” as if it had been recorded on a phone and then repeatedly played and laughed over afterwards, for example, is a an inspired idea. Even his risky practice of playing near-continuous, film-style low level music beneath the speech of actors, some of whom are very inexperienced, conveys atmosphere and works surprisingly well.
All in all then, a very enjoyable show from which the students must have learned a great deal. So did I, despite probably having seen/read the play at least 30 times before — and that’s always the acid test of a production. All drama is education and if a fresh take on a classic makes you think about any aspect of a very familiar play in a new way then it’s teaching as well as entertaining.