Thanks to the fact that Davidson College has more money than God, the Royal Shakespeare Company came to that same middling town in North Carolina and gave those of us willing to make the drive a unique opportunity to experience genuine theater.
For $60 I obtained an orchestra row seat in Davidson’s posh new Duke Family Performance Center. My seat not only enabled me to see the expressions on the actors’ faces and the sweat on their brows, but put me and the fellow next to me in the unique position of having to grab one of the actors by his lapels and feel his ribs. I assure you, this is as much class as the Piedmont of North Carolina has seen in years.
The Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of “The Merchant of Venice” was finely crafted and lightly directed. The set was simple without being
minimalist. A very few pieces of handsome furniture were used to create the atmosphere of genteel nineteenth century Europe. A tall wooden backdrop indicated Venetian canals, being painted with a wavery design that seemed to reflect water when struck by light. The actor’s costumes were, like the furniture, pieces of nineteenth century finery.
The play appears to open in an elite gentleman’s club, with Antonio and Bassanio discussing Bassanio’s loan. The other young men in the club were depicted as casual, loafing playboys.
This sets them up for their appearance later in the play as street thugs who harass Shylock (and provoke the famous “Hath not a Jew eyes?” speech) and also as thieves who surreptitiously attempt to pocket some of the money Jessica takes from her father’s house.
The relationship between Antonio and Bassanio carries a light yet unmistakable implication of homosexual love which is portrayed in such a way that the audience member stops wondering, “Why is Antonio so eager to lend Bassanio the money? And why, when Antonio is facing death for the default on Bassanio’s loan, does he ask nothing more of Bassanio than his presence at the trial?”
Shylock, so often portrayed as the hero of the play, is allowed to retain some of the truly horrifying aspects of his character in this production. His plea to the Duke for Antonio’s flesh came too close to being genuinely moving for my satisfaction, however.
The Duke’s expression of horror is almost cartoonish; therefore the audience begins to feel that more credence should be given to Shylock’s argument. The fact that he is arguing for a pound of human flesh seems almost to be overstepped.
However, Shylock is given one of the most eloquent pieces of imagery in the play. When the judgment is handed down to him, he is forced to leave the court in humiliation and become a Christian.
As he passes by the scales of judgment that were meant to weigh the pound of flesh, he silently removes his kippah and places it at the base of the scales.
Jessica, Shylock’s daughter, was a strangely obtuse character. After running away with Lorenzo, she is, throughout the rest of the play, almost constantly on the verge of tears.
Whether this is grief from being separated from her father or the alienation of a newly converted Christian in a world strange to her, we are never allowed to know.
The play ends with Jessica alone on the stage with Antonio, then on the stage by herself. She turns and flees as though from something terrible but Jessica’s demon was too subtle for my powers of perception.
The play ends with all the cast singing a song that seems to indicate a powerful synthesis of reason and feeling in the world of Venice. Tell me, where is fancy bred, in the heart or in the head?
The audience leaves the
production feeling as though they understand the power of that question.
The Royal Shakespeare Company’s The Merchant of Venice runs at Davidson from Feb. 28 through March 4.