The Merchant of Venice, The Globe, 28 May 2012
Habima’s Hebrew production began by making explicit the casual violence that Shylock reports he endures on a regular basis at the hands of the Venetians.
A group of revellers in period costume danced across and off the stage, enthusiastically enjoying an evening out. Shylock (Jacob Cohen) and Tubal appeared in their red robes and embraced each other in farewell. Alone on stage, Shylock removed his tefillin and was then mobbed by some of the returning group. They mocked him, disrespected the symbols of his religion, before encircling and attacking him.
This transition from revelry to senseless violence provided an unsettling context for the opening scene in which the same people, who we now realised were Antonio (Alon Ophir) and friends, calmly discussed their affairs.
Grim violent reality gave way to something more whimsical when we first met Portia (Hila Feldman). She appeared in a white dress-cum-harness to which a number of white ropes were attached: the ends were held by Nerissa (Rinat Matatov).
Portia’s elaborate restraint mechanism was so unrealistic that it gave her character, trapped by a father’s requirement to marry only the winner of the bizarre casket game, an almost fairytale, folkloric stature.
Moving on from long white ropes, Shylock presented Antonio with the bond he had to sign, which took the form of a long white computer printout. It unfolded from a neat pile until it stretched all the way across the stage and over Antonio as he sat.
The Prince of Morocco (Danny Leshman) smeared his face with brown make-up, as well as his hand, obliging Portia to wipe off the offending pigment after she had touched it. Her words of casual racism against this suitor were thus preceded by an image of her cleansing herself of the contamination caused by physical contact with the moor.
He was presented with a series of boxes, with an actor holding two in his outstretched hands and a third placed over his head. Morocco chose the central casket, removing it to reveal the actor’s head painted as a skull.
Aragon (Yoav Donat) was a lisping Spanish cliché, in this case speaking Hebrew with a Spanish accent. Three actors stood before him with boxes over their heads. He selected a box that once removed revealed a fool, who mimicked and mocked Aragon’s perplexed reaction to his failure.
Portia’s liking for Bassanio (Yousef Sweid) was made plain by the way she manoeuvred herself so that the ropes attached to her harness wrapped around him. He picked the correct casket containing a mop head doll version of Portia, which he kissed, as well as a long sheet of paper itemising what valuables came with his prize.
Like a fairytale princess freed from some wicked stepmother’s curse, Portia was able to release the harness and liberate herself from its ropes.
The remarkable thing about Shylock’s famous speech “Hath not a Jew eyes?” was that it was not in any way bracketed off as a special moment within the tumult of words he deployed in his own defence.
It was only because Jacob Cohen pointed the two fingers of one hand at his own eyes that a non-Hebrew speaker could have recognised the start of it.
The words were not spoken calmly and rationally like elements of a philosophical proposition, nor were they savoured for the essence of truth they contained. They were barked out in anger, indistinguishable from the rest of Shylock’s invective.
As if to underline the point Shylock was making about his mistreatment, once he had finished talking with Tubal he was mobbed yet again by a crowd of young Venetians.
But if the cruelty towards Shylock was made more prominent, then Jessica’s (Liraz Chamami) loving concern for her father was similarly enhanced as if to establish equilibrium.
It seemed that as soon as she had left home to elope with Lorenzo (Nir Zelichowski), she regretted abandoning her father to the tender mercies of his enemies.
In one of the production’s amusing stagings, the appearance of Lorenzo outside Shylock’s house saw the young man and his accomplices move across the back of the stage in a line, shifting their weight and swivelling from heel to toe to indicate their arrival by gondola.
Jessica stood on a chair as Lorenzo lay underneath its seat and she dropped the chest containing Shylock’s valuables the short distance into his grasp. The group then departed using the foot swivel gondola motion.
However, when she heard about the wreck of Antonio’s ships and her father’s insistence on his bond, she immediately looked concerned. Together with Gobbo (Tomer Sharon), she stepped outside the action of the play and sat downstage to watch her father refuse Antonio’s pleas for mercy in the next scene. The staging deliberately emphasised the fixity of her attention on these events.
This was an interesting moment, because at this time the precise nature of her reaction to them was unknown. At this stage, it was never made explicit whether this was concern for the depths of apparent depravity to which Shylock had descended or a response to the fate of Antonio.
But an indication of her true feelings was provided subsequently by a significant recasting of the plot.
Her discontent was still apparent when Portia and Nerissa went off on their mission to rescue Antonio from Shylock’s legal claim.
After the interval, the start of the second half of the play presented the audience with the stark image of Antonio spread-eagled centre stage in a harness to which eleven ropes were attached, some stretching up to the heavens and across the yard to galleries. Thematically, this was a grotesque amplification of Portia’s rope harness.
Shylock placed his scales at the front edge of the stage, transforming them into a symbol of the justice he wished to obtain from the Duke’s court. The others reacted in shock when Shylock began to sharpen his large knife on a leather strap.
The middle gallery was used as a high point from which the Duke (Uri Hochman) spoke to the assembled court. The bond made a second appearance, unfolded right across the stage to be scrutinised by black-robed Portia as she conducted Antonio’s defence.
Once Shylock was defeated, Antonio was released from the harness and Shylock was placed in it. He wailed in expectation of severe punishment . But Shylock was freed from the harness once his life was spared and the terms of his release settled. The bond, which he had made the object of his obsession, was draped over his head and shoulders. Wearing this odd garment, he reversed offstage ruing his fate.
The start of act five, which usually sees harmony between Jessica and Lorenzo backed by gentle soothing music, became in this production a scene of strife in which Jessica tried to leave Lorenzo, forcing him to prevent her departure.
This reworking of the act’s beginning before it continued with its usual light-hearted comedy (Nerissa kneed Gratiano [Aviv Alush] somewhere painful), reminded us that beyond Belmont all was not well.
As if to emphasise the point and finish on a melancholy note, after the jolly couples had departed, a silent epilogue was added in which Shylock wandered the stage before disappearing into an uncertain future.
But general jollity was restored by a jig at the end of the performance, which seemed to offer the hope of something better.
The Merchant of Venice is a controversial play because of the blatantly anti-Semitic utterances of some of its characters. The fact that despite of its contentious content, an Israeli theatre company could stage it and make it work for them, was a significant contribution to the debate surrounding the play.
Bringing this Hebrew production to the Globe stage, a location rapidly establishing itself as the heart of the Shakespeare universe, was a symbolic endorsement of the positive aspects of the play, in particular the powerful eloquence of Shylock’s defence of his people.