The players’ ensemble “Actors from the London Stage” made a welcome return visit to Manhattan this past week, this time to offer us a short (four performance) run of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice in Nichols Theatre on the Kansas State University campus.
I always tell myself to approach any event I’ll be writing about with as open a mind as I can muster, but I have to confess in this case I’d pretty much decided in advance that I was going to like it better this time around than I did the previous take on it I’d seen.
And how could I be so sure? Especially given that my last Merchant was a RSC production at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon featuring none other than Patrick Stewart as Shylock?
Because the RSC, whose presentations are supposedly devoted to honoring the works of the world’s greatest dramatist, turned a tragi-comedy into a glitzo-travesty. You can’t uproot a sixteenth-century script set in old Venice and transplant it in twenty-first-century Vegas and expect it to survive the shock.
But worse even than the wholesale corruption of concept brought by so radical a shakeup was how the RSC’s cluttered circus muted the power—and so dulled the edge—of Shakespeare’s words in its noisy hubbub. By contrast, our five London actors clearly understood that elaborate spectacle, far from supporting image-rich speech, is in fact its sworn enemy. What they served up was dramatic poetry voiced with sensitive passion, free from distractive trappings.
It was a bold, vigorous, unapologetic reading of a script whose story and language often run afoul of what we euphemistically call political correctness. Stark naked it stood revealed, despite its many masterly humorous touches, as one of the Bard’s least amiable depictions of the human condition.
So it must have made many audience members uncomfortable, hearing such talk from the mouths of Shakespearean people. (I’m pretty sure that the RSC’s go at modernizing Merchant was meant to soften its harshness and gentle its roughness in the interest of greater “accessibility.”) But jolting our awareness is the whole point of a problem play. To dilute its effect by any sort of coverup is to distort its purpose.
Shakespeare’s Merchant, seen true, is a trenchant parable built of the evils of hate and greed and the virtues of trust and loyalty. It gets nasty. It employs stereotypes of its own time that with sadly little alteration become the stereotypes of our own. In the end we’re forced to confront mankind’s inability to overcome—or even strongly contend against—the weaknesses in its own nature.
Because of this play’s twenty roles requiring on-stage appearances, the company was harder pressed than previous quintets to staff them all, which led to new heights of ingenious doubling that sometimes found a single actor carrying on both halves of the same conversation. Identities were kept separate by no more than a hat or scarf, and the allocation of assignments added an intriguing, non-Shakespearean spin to the overall message.
What the three-hour-plus outing ended up delivering wasn’t just a verdict against Shylock but the case for playing Shakespeare straight. It was persuasive enough to leave me little to add but the wisdom of not fixing what’s not broke. Nobody sells Shakespeare better than Shakespeare, if you just let him speak.