Big Q Reviews


The Merchant of Venice

by William Shakespeare (with extra text by Julia Pascal)

Pascal Theatre Company
Arcola Theatre, 27 Arcola Street, London E8 2DJ
11 September – 13 October 2007


There are so many good reasons to rush to the Arcola Theatre over the coming few weeks. Not only is the venue a welcoming and relaxing haven in East London, with truly great Turkish kebab shops over the road which are swollen by theatregoers eager for a pre- or post-theatre nosh, but the Arcola is also staging one of the most impressive low-budget productions of The Merchant of Venice you are likely to see this year. Low-budget yes, low artistic merit, definitely not. The play's director and adaptor, Julia Pascal, has added her own intelligent and illuminating take on the infamously anti-Semitic story, augmenting the play where necessary to clarify and contextualize the relationship of Shylock with the Venetians among whom he lives and works, and with his own daughter in the confines of their orthodox home. The result, clear exciting theatre and clear exciting Shakespeare.

The play is located in a 'modern' Venice, with an acting troupe stranded on the island Ghetto where fourteenth and fifteenth century Jews were forced (and allowed) to remain in religious and social isolation. Now a place of cultural pilgrimage for American tourists, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, the Venetian Ghetto provides the perfect backdrop to the metatheatrical 'rehearsal' of this most troubling of Shakespeare's plays.

Pascal has created a new character for this adaptation, one which is fascinating in its own right. Ruth Posner plays a tourist, Sarah, who finds herself stranded alongside her theatrical counterparts, forced to watch the play as it unfolds before her eyes. The visceral implication of this act of enforced voyeurism is the history that accompanies Posner's performance. As the programme notes so importantly inform us, Posner's greatest 'acting' role was as a child in the Warsaw Ghetto, where to avoid the Nazi persecution of her Jewish family, she adopted the persona of a Catholic Pole.

Posner's parents were gassed in Treblinka; she would herself have died in the camp at Auschwitz had the train she and her aunt were being transported on not been bombed by the Allies in 1944. The 78-year-old Ruth Posner is a real-life survivor of the Holocaust and living testimony of the effect of extreme anti-Semitism. We are invited to watch her watching this Shakespearean evocation of anti-Jewish sentiment played out in the only city which tolerated its Jews, albeit with certain restrictions, to live and practice their religion unscathed by violent intervention.

Posner's presence and her knowing and acceptable interruptions of the play, when her young Jewish counterpart, Shylock's daughter Jessica, chooses to renounce her Judaism in return for the love of a fickle and money-grabbing young Venetian Christian, are poignant and valid. For the first time, we are permitted to explore Jessica's involvement in the unfolding narrative, to observe the implication of this religious recusancy and its effect on her father. Scenes of intimacy between father and daughter add to the drama and engage in most unexpected ways. Jodie Taibi is excellent as the young, naïve Jessica, eager to escape her Jewish past and embrace a peroxide-blonde Christian future.

There is nothing, however, that can prepare the audience for possibly the finest, most nuanced performance of Shylock that this reviewer has ever seen of that elusive 'villain'. Paul Herzberg is Shylock. It is as if this fine actor was invented for the role. Not stereotypical 'Jew' but brilliantly Anglicized middle-class money-lender, Herzberg breathes life and character, malice and dismay, into this shocking Shakespearean role. This is a wonderful performance from beginning to tragically-poignant end.

In our post-Nazi age, Shylock is so often presented with guilty relish; audiences wince as the worst excesses of Christian 'mercy' are extended to the Jew who is forced to renounce his religion and embrace Christianity. In Pascal's treatment, and in the expert hands of Herzberg, Shylock is both humanly flawed and humanly vulnerable. We watch as he is abused by the Venetians, only to relish his opportunity to exact bloody revenge. With Herzberg's subtle portrayal of malevolence, we no longer feel guilty at Shylock's eventual downfall; Shylock re-enters the Shakespeare canon as a villainous character no less damaged than a Macbeth or a Iago. This is, to say the least, revelatory.

For the first time it is possible to see the play as an uncomfortable, though not unexpected, statement of historical fact. For the audiences in Shakespeare's time, the Venetian imposition of a fine which removes half Shylock's household but leaves him free to continue his money-lending trade can be seen as positively lenient. Indeed, the expectation that he must leave his estate on his death to his daughter and son-in-law, so often glossed in recent productions, appears no more excessive than the surprising outcome of his imposed Christianization.

We see Shylock forcibly converted on the rack; we understand how, for an audience formed entirely of Christians (there was not a single publicly-practising Jew in England at the time – all Jews were forced to denounce their faith or face the death penalty), the act of Christianizing Shylock was a sacred 'blessing'. Shakespeare's contemporaries would see his conversion to Christianity as the means for Shylock to gain access to a glorious heaven and an eternal salvation lost to his 'faithless' compatriots. Whether a conscious decision of Pascal's or an unwitting by-product of Herzberg's stunning performance, these complicated historical factors are brought into starkly-clarified relief.

A fascinating production that engages its audience from beginning to end. The presence of Posner provides that fascinating semiotic link between an Elizabethan distant past, mid-twentieth-century Holocaust recent past, and an uncomfortable present. Into this mix is thrown the most convincing Shylock of Paul Herzberg and the least angst-ridden evocation of Christian revenge-narrative that this subtle performance permits. As Shakespearean drama this production is impressive; as historical document, this specific production's implicit message is full of hope and tolerance residing amidst indescribable pain and loss. Highly recommended.

Kevin Quarmby © 2007 (this review first appeared at Rogues and Vagabonds, with kind permission of Sarah Vernon)

Director: Julia Pascal
Designer: Sam Boardman-Jacobs
Lighting Designer: Tony Simpson
Movement Director: Thomas Kampe

James Baldwin
Giovanni Bienne
Wednesday Gray
Paul Herzberg
Olalekan Lawal
Benjamin Penemaria
Miranda Pleasance
Ruth Posner
Judith Quin
Emmy Sainsbury
Emily Sidonie
Roderick Smith
Jonathan Woolf
Jodie Taibi