Troubled Merchant in The Playhouse

This Winter 21/22 season at Shakespeare’s Globe has seen productions of Measure for Measure and Hamlet grace the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse and joining them to close out the season is The Merchant of Venice. For modern audiences, The Merchant of Venice is one of Shakespeare’s most disturbing plays with its anti-Semitic content. Unafraid to tackle these issues head-on, Abigail Graham is directing for her Shakespeare’s Globe debut, writes Christopher Peacock.

Graham reduced the length of the series and moved the scenes. This draws attention to the anti-Semitism suffered by Shylock, the Jewish moneylender at the heart of the story, at the hands of Venetian Christian merchants and rulers.

Adrian Schiller’s brilliant Shylock is played with the heart and emotion of a man repeatedly discriminated against and avoids playing into stereotypical tropes. One of the first depictions of these stereotypes to appear on stage or in English literature is that of Shylock himself.

More praise must go to those who were involved in the overall design of the show. A simple industrial-style setting has the stage floor covered in silver coins as a nod to the play’s main theme, money lending. He also succeeds with the choice to opt for a modern dress that is consistent with modern takes in certain scenes, with the lottery for Portia’s hand in marriage played in the style of a 1990s game show being a highlight.

Graham’s daring decisions to cut and restructure scenes certainly give a sympathetic retelling of the story and this is evident in the final scenes of his production. The play cuts out the scenes that conclude the romantic stories and chooses to end the play with the disappearance of Shylock who has been stripped of his fortune and forced to convert to Christianity. Performed in a cacophony of sound, with Shylock’s daughter Jessica lamenting in Hebrew, makes it powerful and emotional. Themes of identity and Jessica’s own struggles in this production don’t have as much time to explore as the focus remains on her father.

With such a shortcut and modification of the script, Graham’s goal of changing the orientation of the room is achieved. She examines the darker side of what is meant to be comedy without sacrificing the laughs. All that glitters may not be gold, but this production certainly shines.

Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, Shakespeare’s Globe, Bankside, SE1 9DT until 9 April. Opening hours: Tuesday – Sunday: various. See website for more details. Admission: £5 – £59.

Reservation: https://www.shakespearesglobe.com/whats-on/the-merchant-of-venice-2021/

Photos: Tristan Kenton

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