Merchant of Venice, The

The Merchant of Venice

Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, Fri 22 Sep-Sat 21 Oct


Shakespeare’s great commentary on the unease between Christians and Jews has suffered, over the years, with some of the most tortured attempts to make it conform to one thesis or another imaginable. All of his work, of course, has been interpreted as widely and pluralistically as The Bible and has, at times, caused nearly as much damage, yet it is the story of Shylock and his quest for his pound of flesh that has seen such diversity that it’s often difficult to see the same play behind different productions. From the essay in anti-Semitism that the Nazis made the play, to the plea against the same of frequent more recent productions, the vexatious feeling that the play itself has been lost is enough to make a Rabbi join the Jihad.

That’s why this Mark Thompson production seems so appealing. For Thompson, as ever, is determined to let the text do the talking. Add this to the considerable bonus of a return to the Lyceum’s stage of one of Scotland’s highest quality actors, Jimmy Chisholm, as Shylock and there seems to be plenty of promise here. ‘Mark’s not gone into the desperate box for a gimmick; this is a straight production, set in a marketplace, in modern dress,’ says Chisholm. ‘The only people who’ll come out of the theatre happy would be the anti-capitalist league,’ he adds, pointing to an often-neglected idea about money and materialism that underpins the text.

But this last remark also tells us something about the text which has contributed to the idea that this is a ‘difficult’ Shakespeare; there is often a feeling that no one emerges well from the play, so we find it difficult to identify with the characters. But for Chisholm a straightforward interpretation of the characters, even his, is an advantage. ‘He shows the other bastards how big a bastard he can be. My problem with Shylock is he takes it too far; he’s not teaching anyone a lesson by showing he can be as bad as the rest. But that’s also what’s good about the play; it shows human nature in its worst condition. It’s quite honest in that way. Shylock simply does what the other people do. He points out that the Christians have slaves, and these are commodities; all he’s doing is using that pound of flesh as a commodity. No one sticks to their word in the play but Shylock.’ Expect a stylish, no-frills production.

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