Globe to Globe: The Merchant of Venice in Hebrew (Israel)

Before I get into the performance itself, a few things about the protests around the production. The estimable Dr. Peter Kirwan, Shakespeare-in-performance blogger extraordinaire, has an excellent pair of posts around first, the protests (and the atmosphere they created), and second, the art. Around the former topic, my brief thoughts are:

1. The occupation of Palestine is inhumane and atrocious.

2. Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions doesn’t work.

3. Interrupting art to shout is not a good way of getting people to agree with you (I recognise that getting people to agree is not always the goal of protests).

4. The occupation of Palestine is inhumane and atrocious.

Now, for the play.

All photos (c) Simon Kane

I don’t think it’s unfair to say that in the Globe to Globe festival, the more oppressive a government is, the more boring its state theatre production has been. China’s Richard III was a head-down, eyes-on-the-finish-line production, saved by the fact that Richard III is a fucking brilliant play. And Albania, which only broke through the eggshell of totalitarianism twenty-two years ago, gave a wretched Henry VI, Part Two.

I think this is because George Orwell was right and repressive governments have no poetry. You can’t create artistic beauty when you’re trying to control people’s minds.

Israel isn’t as oppressive of its own people as it is of the Palestinians, but state theatre Habima’s production of The Merchant of Venice was still disappointingly uninspiring. Aside from a few good choices (discussed below) it just didn’t go anywhere.

Shylock was good: small and pathetic, a brittle iron bar under pressure and about to snap. The character’s fragility was emphasised when the anti-Habima protesters in the theatre for some reason focused on his scenes to interrupt; the night I was there, a light scene between Portia and Nerissa was the only scene without Shylock in it to be interrupted. I agree with the political aims of the protestors, but any time you’re shouting down and trying to silence a Jewish actor saying “Hath not a Jew eyes?” you should really stop and look at your choices.

Photo (c) Simon Kane

This antagonism both on and offstage fuelled the energy of Shylock’s reflexive, thoughtless revenge in the fourth act. Jacob Cohen faded over the course of the play, from a bright-eyed witty father and friend – the pound of flesh here started as a pointed but benign joke at the expense of his Christian clients – to a dull, vicious automaton in his final appearance, stunned by the defection of his daughter, able to move his limbs only just enough to whet his knife on a leather strap.

Photo (c) Simon Kane

Antonio was simply thuggish, with broad shoulders and a square smug face. That was correct. Portia, Nerissa, Bassanio and Gratiano were all fine (Portia and Nerissa visually interesting, which is more than I can say for the boys). There was some business with blackface and the Prince of Morocco that was clearly trying to say Something but didn’t quite manage it.

Portia, Bassanio, Nerissa and the suitors all being played by Jewish actors made it much easier for me to get into their plot. Often during those scenes I am deeply uncomfortable because I know they’re all about to be (or have already been) very racist and I think, “I don’t really care whether you two get to marry each other unless there’s a secret fourth casket with the message ‘dear everyone: stop being smug dicks’ in it”. Somehow the cast being made up of a globally disadvantaged people mitigated that, infusing those scenes with the knowledge that they’ve been on both sides of racist oppression.

Habima dealt with the problem of Jessica by giving her some actual characterisation, a solution I have to admit I hadn’t thought of. She is traditionally a bit hapless but fundamentally sensible, leading to the questions (1) why is she in such a hurry to get out of Shylock’s house? (a seeming paradox if you want to make both Jessica sensible and Shylock sympathetic) and (2) how does she feel about the events of the trial? She seems to cast off her Jewish identity without a second thought, which is troubling after what happens to Shylock. Most directors since the 1940s have given her some non-verbal regret about her choice once she hears of her father’s fate.

Habima’s Jessica came across to me as much younger than she’s usually played – around 15 or 16, the perfect age to say “Screw you, Dad, I’m running away and converting to Christianity!” and mean it without understanding what it means to mean it. She doesn’t really know Lorenzo, but he’s handsome enough, seems keen on her and offers to take her away from her humiliating life in the ghetto. Who cares about his personality or friends?

There was nothing artistically wrong with this production but there wasn’t very much exciting about it either, and when I have to fight through two passionate groups of protesters to get into a theatre, I want the art I find within to have earned the controversy.

Photo (c) Simon Kane

I saw Globe to Globe’s The Merchant of Venice at Shakespeare’s Globe on May 29, 2012.

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