I wasn’t looking forward to diving into Merchant of Venice again – when I was a kid, I could get swept up in the poetry and romance and high drama. I went to England one summer when I was in college and met up with a group of local undergraduates who were doing a round-the-clock read-through of the complete plays at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre and other locations. I got to read a portion of Shylock while sitting at a table facing a costume display that included Peggy Ashcroft’s old Portia dress from the 30s. Thrilled and delighted to say the least.
Now, however, I am less starry-eyed. Disenchanted both with the play’s anti-Semitism and the attempts of directors and actors to drag the play into a modern, less-offensive sensibility. You can no longer act or direct your way out of the problem of Shylock. Act V, where everyone has a good laugh and lives happily ever after, drops like an anchor just when you try to run away from it. The greater the effort to present Shylock in a sympathetic light, the greater the opposite reaction when the comedy of the last scene kicks in.
And you can completely turn Shakespeare upside down trying to make Shylock a tragic hero, but then it’s no longer Shakespeare but rather some mangled, incoherent, blob of self-loathing. A play performed by people who hate the play they’re performing. And if it’s no longer Shakespeare’s play, why present it at all? Well, why indeed…
The Argo recording is as straightforward as humanly possible, without gimmick, contemporary subtext or sarcasm. Tony Church gives Shylock a middle-European accent (an accent is almost implied, as Shylock is given a unique rhythm and manner of speech), but otherwise he hugs the text closely – no histrionics, no tears, no howling, growling or shrieking. And surprisingly, this gives the character dignity and integrity. It feels close to Shakespeare’s intentions, to the extent that we can ever know them, and we’re free to develop our own reaction to the play.
Margaretta Scott is a fine actress but her voice has aged out of Portia. I say her voice, because she made the recording while only in her late 40s, when many actresses would still have been convincing. Yet she has great warmth and good humor, and her performance of the trial scene is splendid, so why complain? Gary Watson is a fine Bassanio, and Michael Bates adds another portrait to his gallery of Shakespearean comics as Launcelot Gobbo. His scene with Old Gobbo, played by Terrence Hardiman (who seems to be channelling Peter Sellers’ Henry Crun character from the Goon Show) is quite funny, though it would have been better with more rehearsal, I suspect.
The Merchant of Venice with Tony Church, Margaretta Scott, Gary Watson, George Rylands, Michael Bates.