Theater: A 19th Century Shylock

Theater: A 19th Century Shylock
Under the shadow of a Venetian palazzo, the figure strides onstage in
the regalia of an affluent Victorian gentleman —top hat, frock coat,
gloves and cane. Is this some cultured character out of the pages of Henry James? One of
the gentry from The Forsyte Sagal Hardly. It is Shakespeare's “wolvish,
bloody” Shylock, in a provocative new production of The Merchant of
Venice by London's National Theatre. The director is the multidexterous Jonathan Miller, who for the past
year has been making a name in England as a Shakespearean interpreter.
For his Old Vic debut, he has removed Merchant from its traditional
Renaissance setting and placed it in that most mercantile of periods,
the late 19th century. In his staging, the characters as well as the
furniture are ornate, substantial, richly upholstered. The verse is
flattened into realistic conversational accents. The play's
extravagances are trimmed to the tone and dimensions of a
leather-cushioned board room. Engine of Commerce. The point is as clear as it is contemporary. Money
and goods are what the Venetian world turns on. But in Miller's
conception, the obsession is shared not only by Shylock and his fellow
usurers but also among those who look down on Shylock—Christian
merchants, lovers, well-born ladies. All levels of society are driven
by the engine of commerce, in marriage contracts no less than in other
transactions. A director who sees the countinghouse at the center of the play cannot
take seriously Portia's enchanted realm of Belmont, with its
fairy-tale plot and flowery sentiments. Miller treats it as either
hypocritical or irrelevant. He turns the casket scenes into occasions
for extravaganzas of comic stage business. In the famous lyric dialogue
between Lorenzo and Jessica , he makes
Lorenzo a pipe-puffing bore and has Jessica fall asleep. Thus he
undercuts the romantic element of the play, the key to what Shaw called
the work's “humanity and poetry.” In a world ruled by money, Miller
suggests, poetry and magic have no currency. In short, Miller takes a one-sided view of the play, but it is a strong
side. For one thing, it makes the play more than ever Shylock's play.
And as Shylock, Miller has Laurence Olivier—at 62, performing the
role for the first time in his career. In keeping with the period
setting, Olivier does away with the hooked nose, greasy locks and
biblical rantings that have served stage Shylocks down through the
centuries. His is a Jew who has come out of the ghetto and into his
own, proving that you can teach an old dog nouveau tricks. Yet if this Shylock is more or less domesticated, he is not quite tamed.
His fashionable top hat comes off to reveal a yarmulke on his head. His
upper-class speech breaks down into a breathy canine laugh or into
red-faced rages of snarling and spitting. Once, after his humiliation
in court, his dignity falls away completely and he lapses offstage into
a piercing primeval wail of lamentation. Disappointingly to some, this
is as near as Olivier comes in this characterization to performing at
full classical pitch. Nor does he modulate to softer emotions. He tears
angrily through the “Hath not a Jew eyes” speech, from which most
Shylocks wring the last drop of pathos.