The Merchant of Venice Review

Like many of Shakespeare's plays, the main plot points of The Merchant of Venice are not original ones. Variations of the 'pound of flesh' story and the 'three caskets' tale are to be found in earlier sources - the Mahabharat, The Decameron, and even Marlowe's The Jew of Malta have all been put forward as possible influences - but what makes The Merchant of Venice great of course is what Shakespeare brings to it. There's the poetry of the language, there's the skill and the manner in which he brings both these stories together, there's the insight into characterisation that brings the moral complexities and ambiguities out of the story, but primarily, what is great about The Merchant of Venice is in how Shakespeare turns it into a compelling drama. The RSC's 2015 production directed by Polly Findlay plays around with much of what is familiar about the work, but it at least makes it every bit as dramatic as it ought to be.

Thus far the live broadcasts of Royal Shakespeare Company's productions at Stratford-upon-Avon have all been fairly traditional. Certainly the English history plays, collectively performed as 'King and Country', focussed on those qualities of those works as they pertain to the crown and England. Other plays - Love's Labour's Lost, Love's Labour's Won, The Three Gentlemen of Verona - even if they were updated out of their period settings, at least found a way to retain the essential character of the works by placing them in a new context. While there is still close adherence to the essence of what The Merchant of Venice is all about in the RSC's new production, there is definitely more of a sense of experimentation here, the director trying to do a little more with the characters, stretch them and push the situations they find themselves in that little bit further to see where their true limits are.

In narrative terms, there's no significant variation from the familiar unfolding of events, but the characters and their behaviour are just that little bit more intense. Antonio, for example, is something of a nervous wreck here, not at all confident about the ships upon which his livelihood depends returning on time to save him from bankruptcy, or worse. There's a little more made of his relationship with his friend Bassanio as a reason for his foolhardy entering into a bond with the Jewish moneylender Shylock, but the 'closeness' of that friendship is one that has been questioned before. There are many other little quirks of characterisation, some, like Gratiano, modernising the behaviour for an audience to better recognise the nature of the character, others, like Lancelot Gobbo with his clown-painted face, twisting and exaggerating the deadpan delivery for comic purposes. Even if you can't always understand what is being said, the way it's delivered gets the essence across to the audience.

What's the purpose of such twists on the characterisation? Well, in the case at least of the more important characters, it's an attempt to get past the traditional and now problematic portrayals of Shylock (open to questions of anti-Semitism) and Portia (who inexplicably becomes an experienced lawyer in the second part of the play and is appointed without difficulty to take charge of a significant case). Doing so allows us to explore the characters in more depth to see whether their situation and experience of The Merchant of Venice applies in a modern context. At the time of its original broadcast in July 2015 - although it's doubtful that it was intended that way - it was possible for example to see how the situation and questions of the quality of mercy mirrored in the crisis then facing the Greek economy. It didn't matter whether you saw Greece in the situation of Antonio, held to ransom by the European financial institutions keen on punishing the presumption of the country and demanding their 'pound of flesh', or in the person of Shylock, who sticks to his guns and suffers the consequences, but is also a victim of the letter of an ambiguous law being interpreted without consideration of the human costs, ("You take my house when you do take the prop that doth sustain my house"). What really mattered was that the setting of Polly Findlay's interpretation left the work open to a more universal application.

Watching the production again this time on BD with those contemporary events in the past, the Greek financial crisis never crossed my mind, but it's the truth of that universal application that allows many other suggestions and interpretations to be applied. Principally, however, it gives cause to reexamine the work itself, its structure and how it achieves its impact and meaning. The characterisation in the direction and the performances themselves can be irritating and somewhat mannered in places, but by taking things to extremes they manage nonetheless to draw that connection between the people and what they stand for; they are people but symbols at the same time. Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice explores the value we put on people and the value we put on things. Flesh and money. What price a pound of flesh? How much do we value what a ring stands for? It's in this area of 'commerce' that Shakespeare brings together the two strands that otherwise don't fit entirely comfortably. "All the wealth I had ran in my veins", Bassanio tells Portia. Antonio's letter, bearing the bad news of the failure of his various enterprises, is viewed likewise: "the paper as the body of my friend, and every word in it a gaping wound, issuing life-blood". The imagery is as powerful here towards the meaning of commerce in a world "still deceived with ornament" than the more familiar "All that glisters is not gold".

The unusual set design by Johannes Schütz doesn't so much attempt to work with Polly Findlay's direction as much as find an abstract space for the work to play in. The background and the stage itself are gold panels of brass, reflecting and showing the audience back at themselves through a mirror of gold. Wealth made flesh. All that glisters indeed. A weighty wrecking-ball is set into motion also in Portia's first scene and it sways throughout the play. If Venice is not to be seen anywhere, the world of commerce is nonetheless alluded to in such touches. Composer Marc Tritschler also picks up on this and the idea of a choir - each of the characters remaining on-stage throughout, sitting to either side of the stage - and works early Venetian music and ideas of spatial choral music into the whole fabric of the setting very successfully. Whether it integrates with the intentions of the director or not, the set design doesn't detract from the performance or impose a contradictory reading either. The main drive of this Merchant of Venice resides in the intensity of the performances and how they contribute to the essential drama. This leads to a thrilling, almost agonising courtroom scene where "the quality of mercy" is severely tested, but rains down gently and in abundance.

The RSC's 2015 The Merchant of Venice is released on DVD and Blu-ray by Opus Arte. The Blu-ray is BD50, the transfer of the live HD broadcasts is 1080/60p (as opposed to 24fps for a film) with an AVC encode. The BD is all-region compatible.

As with the previous releases of the RSC's productions, the quality of the High Definition transfer is of an exceptionally high standard. The image quality is pristine on the Blu-ray release, the HD transfer handling the theatre conditions with the varying lighting conditions well. The production here is often dark and low-lit, the theatrical lighting retained without additional brightening for the live HD broadcast recording. That means that the image is slightly softer than you might find in a film transfer, but it's appropriate here and necessary to the theatrical experience. That said, the transfer handles the difficult lighting conditions well, the image always looking clear, with no evident issues whatsoever with compression artefacts, banding or aliasing.

Audio tracks are provided in LPCM stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 at 48kHz/24-bit. Filmed live, under theatrical conditions with no visible microphones on the person or around the stage, there are however no significant issues with picking up the dialogue.

Although the enclosed booklet continues to provide translations of the content in French and German, subtitles for those languages are no longer supplied on the Blu-ray disc itself. Subtitles are now in English only.

As with all the releases from the RSC so far, there's a full Director's Commentary here from Polly Findlay that can be listened to during the performance. Also in the extra features, the director and a few of the actors talk about the approach of this production in a five-minute Telling the Story featurette. A further featurette Setting the Stage looks at the technical challenges of creating the unusual set design. There is also a Cast Gallery and a booklet with a brief synopsis and an essay by Howard Jacobson.

Director Polly Findlay and set designer Johannes Schütz take a few chances here, experimenting with the characters and the setting of the RSC's 2015 The Merchant of Venice. It's debatable whether they really manage to bring anything new out of Shakespeare's play, but the dramatic character of the work at least is well served. Without neglecting the problematic questions of the Jewish and Christian behaviour in the work however, the RSC's production also can be said to successfully look at other more relevant and contemporary concerns regarding commerce and the value we apply to things that have no conventional measurement of worth. It has its flaws, but this is an interesting perspective on one of Shakespeare's most controversial and intriguing plays.

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This modern and sometimes abstract production gets to the heart of Shakespeare's play without taking a pound of flesh.


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