‘The Merchant of Venice’ by William Shakespeare is troubling. It is so often seen as a play that challenges racist stereotyping of Jewish characters, principally due to Shylock’s famous ‘Hath not a Jew eyes speech’ in which Shylock attempts to demonstrate how Jews and Christians are not so different. However, as I agreed in my discussion with Sol Alberman (who plays Shylock) after the show, this speech is not so much a call for greater empathy but rather a justification for Shylock’s revenge on the eponymous merchant Antonio. Performing ‘The Merchant of Venice’ unaltered or even with the wrong edits can consequently lead to the reinforcement of negative anti-Semitic stereotypes and cause greater harm than good. Thus, it is with pleasure that I can say that this production of ‘The Merchant of Venice’ successfully manages to avoid such issues by treating its tragic Jewish hero with the appropriate weight and focusing on Shylock’s tragedy rather than making it the slapstick comedy it would have been presented as in Shakespeare’s day.
I would argue that one of the performance’s greatest strengths are its editing of the source material. The production merges several scenes together which actually greatly enhances the flow of the piece and allows certain storylines to become clearer. For example, the production merges Shylock’s conversation with Jessica with Lorenzo’s taking her away to become a Christian. Indeed, the presence of Lorenzo undermines Shylock’s authority over his own home and reinforces the tragic nature of the Jewish moneylender’s position. Furthermore, the radical cutting of the ring plots again allows the production to focus more on the tragedy of Shylock, greatly enhancing its mature treatment of the theme of anti-Semitism.
On the subject of Shylock, Sol Alberman’s performance as the famous Jew was phenomenal. Understated but suffused with tragedy and with a consistently strong and clearly demarcated physical and vocal performance, I felt almost moved to tears by certain aspects of Sol’s performance. In particular, his treatment of the famous ‘Hath not a Jew eyes’ speech was truly spellbinding. Sol resisted the urge to make the speech a melodramatic plea for empathy and instead let the text speak for itself, showing Shylock’s emotions through subtle movements and vocal emphases. It genuinely sent shivers down my spine and you really felt the audience completely transfixed on Sol’s performance. Similar praise must be given to Gwynneth Horbury as Portia who, particularly in the courtroom scenes, maturely brings out the character’s horrific anti-Semitism and as Lord Mann commented upon in his after-show Q&A, you really could feel the sense of discomfort of an audience watching the character slowly take away everything Shylock has.
The setting of the Cambridge Union was also an extremely effective performance venue for ‘The Merchant of Venice.’ The Union as a space carries a lot of moral weight and connotes a real sense of power and thus it felt important that anti-Semitism was being exposed in the heart of the University of Cambridge. This feels particularly pertinent in light of recent events not only across the country but in the heart of the Union itself (I think you know what I’m referring to…) Unfortunately, the fact that there was only one entrance/exit meant latecomers often delayed the speediness of transitions but this is an issue that I’m sure will be resolved in later nights.
I also really enjoyed the use of live music during the piece, composed ably by Jonathan Whiting. It was eerie, creepy and unsettling and helped build tension throughout the piece. I only wish it had been slightly louder and more prominent throughout: the musicians were all in a corner on the top balcony of the union and it would have been nice to see them performing and I think such positioning would have helped boost their sound volume. I also felt that some of the scenes not featuring Shylock lacked some intensity, tension and stakes but I believe this is a problem more with the script than the production, with scenes that focus on the lovers B-plot often feeling like they take us away from the more interesting Shylock A-plot. However, the production team did heavily cut these scenes down which I think helped move the show along at a speedy pace and entailed that the focus was unquestionably on Shylock’s tragic plight.
Overall, I would highly recommend you see ‘The Merchant of Venice’. It features excellent performances, a great musical score, and I think it’s super exciting to see a play put on at the Union and I hope this sets a precedent for future productions to follow suit. However, what is most impressive is the production’s renegotiation of the source material to make it so that the audience do not laugh at Shylock’s tragic life, but sympathise with him and feel extremely uncomfortable watching a Jewish man have his life destroyed due solely to the fact that he is ‘a Jew.’ A feat that, nowadays, I worry is starting to become all too common…