Trevor Nunn’s Merchant of Venice is available from:
Amazon.co.uk as a DVD for £11.91
Amazon.com as a DVD for $18.93
Prices are indicative – check the actual price at the Vendors’ links above.
Our Bottom Line (*****):
A superb production of The Merchant of Venice, with excellent performances from Henry Goodman (Shylock); David Bamber (Antonio); Derbhle Crotty (Portia). There are no weak links in the rest of the cast. Trevor Nunn’s directorial touches makes this the definitive production of the play in the 21st Century.
The film starts with Antonio in a Twenties bar; in Venice?; in Vienna?; in the Wiemar republic?; in London?. This is the first of Nunn’s directorial touches which transform the play. The decadence which pervades the play; the almost black and white set throughout; the twenties music; the tired atmosphere (‘In sooth I know not why I am so sad’) all contribute to an atmosphere which pervades the film and the story most appropriately.
The story of The Merchant of Venice is well-known so let’s focus on the directorial touches and actor contributions which make this production so special:
Antonio (David Bamber) is gay, and in love with Bassanio, unable to refuse him anything. He is also, coincidentally, played as deeply unpleasant. He won’t let Bassanio go, and in the court scene in particular, holds on to him in the most repellent manner He is ‘a tainted wether of the flock’.
Portia (Derbhle Crotty), too, is ‘a weary of this world’. The suitors are just too tiresome. Why should a daughter have to follow this paternal ritual of the three caskets to select a husband? The suitor scenes can also be too tiresome for an audience, but they are each played with a touch of humourous caricature which amuses instead of boring us.
Whilst Portia is bored with her suitors, Shylock (Henry Goodman), is wondering if he can use the 3,000 ducats as a way of trapping his enemy, Antonio. Henry Goodman plays Shylock as a sophisticated businessman with a focus on ‘the law’. Of course he is Jewish, but he is presented as the outsider who does not play by the same rules as those he lives among. Those rules are reflected in the law, of course, and the Shylock sub-plot becomes focused on how the law is used by the majority to subvert the wishes of the outsider. Goodman is frankly brilliant in this role: angry and bitter with Antonio; distraught at his daughter’s elopement ; and determined on his just revenge.
Nunn shows another delightful touch before Shylock goes to the dinner party, and Jessica leaves him forever to be with Lorenzo. Together, Jessica and Shylock sing a traditional Jewish song. At the end of the play, after Lorenzo and Jessica have been given the bond which promises them Shylock’s wealth when he dies, Jessica sinks to the ground and, with more than a touch of guilt, sings this song again.
We’re heading for the court scene now at full speed. There’s yet another brilliant directorial touch here. Tubal, Shylock’s Jewish friend, attends the court scene (though there’s no stage direction in the script for his entrance or exit). He says nothing, of course, but leaves after Shylock demands judgement by the law, and as Antonio prepares his bosom for the forfeiture, with one revealing look at Shylock.
And now the judgement is reversed and Shylock finds himself, by law, the victim of the court, and Antonio stands in judgement upon him.
Of course, we still have a whole Act to go. The play was written as a romantic comedy – if you don’t believe me, have a look at:
Although a modern audience can hardly fail to see the play in the light of Jewish persecution in the second world war, the play that Shakespeare wrote was a romantic comedy, and we still have to sort out the confusion between the lovers, over the rings.
The rings, given to Bassanio and Gratiano by their new brides, as a symbol of fidelity, are given by the two men to the lawyer and his clerk. Act Five is given over to this betrayal of the two men’s word, and the anger which the women feel. It is not dissimilar to Antonio’s breaking of his bond with Shylock, though in this case it is resolved, with some bitter jokes about cuckolding, by the two women. But the image which remains with me, after the film is over, is Jessica’s bitter and guilty singing of the Jewish song she has sung earlier with her father.