Direction: Abigail Graham
Designer: Sarah Beaton
Dramaturgy: Zoë Svendsen
Candle Lighting: Sally Ferguson
Music: Zac Gvi
Musicians: Midori Jaeger, Saleem Raman, Dave Shulman
Sound: Christopher Shutt
Movement: Jennifer Jackson
Assistant Direction: Tash Hyman
Dramatherapist: Wabriya King
Intimacy Director: Yarit Dor
Cast: Raymon Anum, Daniel Bowerbank, Ben Caplan, Michael Gould, Michael Marcus, Sophie Melville, Adrian Schiller, Tripti Tripuraneni, Aaron Vodovoz, Eleanor Wyld.
Production photographs: Tristram Kenton
Can Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice (c. 1596–8) still be staged today? This was the question that drove my work on this with director Abigail Graham in the Globe’s indoor space, the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. Rather than seeking to dampen down its misogyny and racism, this production dialled it up – revealing the hate-filled hypocrisy of the ‘Christian’ character: for what it really is. The production went into rehearsal just as the news was starting to emerge of the Downing Street parties that took place throughout the pandemic lockdowns in 2020. As a result, the production’s interest in the way the powerful dance on the unacknowledged pain of others took on a directly political hue. Life was imitating art, with a particularly apposite quote from F Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, The Great Gatsby doing the rounds on Twitter:
“They smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”
Our production shifted the main focal lens of the play from the Christian characters, to the Jewish characters, centring the relationship between money-lender Shylock and his daughter, Jessica. Nor did the production shy away from Portia’s racism. Often Portia is played as an innocent, plucky heroine, celebrated for her wit and chutzpah for cross-dressing. Instead, actor Sophie Melville played the Trial scene as a preplanned display of power, in which Portia strings Shylock along until she can claim he has attempted murder, – and then revealing that he never had any right to justice, being an ‘alien’, i.e. not christian. In Merchant of Venice’s infamous trial scene, it feels impossible to revert to the somewhat facetious rom-com genre of the final act of the play. At the same time, we didn’t want to centre Shylock’s pain in a way that would imply that contemporary culture is more emancipated, suggesting he would be heard and better treated in our culture now. It seemed important to acknowledge that the Christian characters do ‘win’, and would of course carry on without regard for Shylock: because the inequities of the world mean that the oppressors just keep on partying.
Act Five therefore became a crazy fight between different forces. Brought to realise what she has lost through embracing the vacuousness of the Christian character’s lifestyle, Shylock’s daughter Jessica sings the Jewish prayer of mourning, Kol Nidre, eventually drowning out the Christian character’s attempts to continue with Shakespeare’s words – until they give up trying do the words. Instead they shout over Jessica and throwing wads of cash around, start to party their way off stage – as Jessica’s haunting prayer takes over again, ending the play in darkness and deep mourning, as the last candle is extinguished.