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Jonathan Miller and Laurence Olivier
Boika Sokolova
,
Kirilka Stavreva
, and
J. C. Bulman

The spectre of Henry Irving hovered uncannily over the National Theatre's 1970 production of The Merchant of Venice. Jonathan Miller, a theatrical iconoclast with an interest in social history far keener than Laurence Olivier's, located the roots of modern prejudice not in theology, but in economic theory and power relations. For him, as for Irving, The Merchant should not pander to popular prejudices with comic stereotypes, but promote 'a feeling of dignity and austerity'; it should eschew romantic artifice in order to 'search for reality'. By updating the play to 1880, Olivier appropriated Shakespeare's text to explore a society in which the economic and social tensions emergent in Elizabethan England had become more intricate and codified. In order to refashion the play as a realistic portrait of late Victorian society, Miller had to adjust Shakespeare's text.

in Shakespeare in Performance
Abstract only
Diminishing returns
Boika Sokolova
,
Kirilka Stavreva
, and
J. C. Bulman

Ten years after his production for the National Theatre, Jonathan Miller had the opportunity to produce The Merchant of Venice again, this time for the BBC as part of its ambitious plan to record all of Shakespeare's plays. Citing the work of recent social historians, he set out to reconstruct the fundamental 'Elizabethanism' of the plays, creating for each one a sort of period verisimilitude that would demonstrate how Shakespeare engaged the social and political attitudes of his audience. Television thus helped Miller to fulfil his ambition of fashioning The Merchant as a naturalistic nineteenth-century drama suitable for Masterpiece Theatre. Miller had elected to sacrifice the public dimension of Shakespeare's traditionally climactic scene in order to achieve the naturalism he thought television required. The theatrical fictions of the play worked against Miller's use of the medium. A number of critics found director Jack Gold's Merchant balanced, simple, direct, and inoffensive.

in Shakespeare in Performance
The Merchant of Venice directed by Robert Sturua (2000) and Edward Hall (2009)
Boika Sokolova
,
Kirilka Stavreva
, and
J. C. Bulman

The chapter discusses two unconventional productions of The Merchant of Venice bookending the first decade of the twenty-first century. Both resonated powerfully with tensions and fears caused by major socio-political and financial catastrophes. Robert Sturua’s Shylock at the Et Cetera Theatre in Moscow (2000) appeared after the collapse of the Soviet Union, in the depths of post-communist crises and wars. Nine years later, Edward Hall’s all-male touring company put on the play for British and American audiences in the throes of the global financial crisis of 2008. Devoid of moralising or sentimentality, these productions offered astute diagnoses of the social traumas of their historical moments. Sturua transformed the genre of the romantic comedy into a darkly satirical carnival; Hall replaced comedy with vicious drama. Both productions focused on ruthless power struggles, laid bare the connection between money and violence, gave no chance to hope, and allowed hatred to triumph. An unforgiving, claustrophobic, xenophobic, money-obsessed Venice became the central character. Sturua’s Merchant unfolded in an absurdist theatrical world; Hall’s was set in a prison. Both stagings deployed a distinctly post-modern approach: they featured metatheatrical and metacinematic elements, framing, da capo endings, cut and reshuffled playtexts, and multiple intertextual and intra-textual quotations. The play’s antagonists, Antonio and Shylock, were portrayed as mirror images.

in Shakespeare in Performance
Bill Alexander and Antony Sher
Boika Sokolova
,
Kirilka Stavreva
, and
J. C. Bulman

Bill Alexander's production of The Merchant for the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1987, revived the following year in London, grappled with the play's offensive subject matter more daringly than any production. Refusing either to rehabilitate Shylock as the play's moral standard-bearer (as Miller had done in 1970) or to treat him from a safe historical distance as a comic 'Elizabethan' Jew (as Miller had done in 1980), Alexander courted controversy, seeming almost to invite accusations of racism. Alexander modulated the dynamics of audience response. In an interview for Drama Antony Sher, who played Shylock, noted with dismay that audiences spontaneously applauded this moment. Alexander's Merchant calls the conception of bigotry into question: it assumes that, for all our good intentions, for all our rhetoric of tolerance, deeply ingrained and unacknowledged cultural stereotypes continue to shape our responses to racial, religious, and sexual otherness.

in Shakespeare in Performance
The Merchant of Venice directed by Daniel Sullivan (2010) and Rupert Goold (2011)
Boika Sokolova
,
Kirilka Stavreva
, and
J. C. Bulman

The commercially successful and provocative productions discussed in this chapter were staged at exceptionally popular, publicly funded theatres. Daniel Sullivan directed the play for the Delacorte stage of the Public Theater in New York’s Central Park, with the rising star Lily Rabe as Portia, playing against Al Pacino, who revisited Shylock after performing the part in Michael Radford’s film. The production merited a two-month run on Broadway. For the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon, Rupert Goold cast Patrick Stewart as Shylock – the actor’s second take on the character after John Barton’s RSC’s chamber production in 1979. Goold revived The Merchant at the Almeida Theatre, London, with Ian McDiarmid as Shylock. Susanna Fielding gave an award-winning performance of Portia on both stages. Casting star actors as Shylock and talented interpreters of Portia, Sullivan and Goold gave these characters equal attention. Goold set the play in the casinos of Las Vegas and the reality TV shows of garish consumerism. On the Delacorte stage, in turn, the power of money was symbolised by a mammoth set of concentric metal railings, which first divided the privileged from the outsiders, but eventually seemed more like a prison for all. Enticing audiences with the affective power of, respectively, vaudeville and glamorised popular culture, Sullivan and Goold expunged the romance from Shakespeare’s play. The productions underscored the morally corrosive power of money in a cold, acquisitive world.

in Shakespeare in Performance
Performance and context
Boika Sokolova
,
Kirilka Stavreva
, and
J. C. Bulman

If history is any judge, the crucial problem in staging The Merchant of Venice is how to balance its two distinct and seemingly unrelated plots. Although both derive from folk tales, Shakespeare dramatised them in such disparate styles that they seem to compete with rather than to complement one another. This chapter focuses on the roles of Antonio, Bassanio, Shylock, and Portia, exploring the representation of each character in terms of performance and context. It is argued that on the Elizabethan stage, Shakespeare submerged Portia's gender identity so completely in the fusion of Balthasar with the boy actor that the audience would have perceived her only as male. When The Merchant was first performed in late 1596 or 1597, Jews had not lived in England for over three hundred years, and anti-Semitic myths had been able to grow and prosper unimpeded by the presence of Jews to refute them.

in Shakespeare in Performance
Boika Sokolova
,
Kirilka Stavreva
, and
J. C. Bulman

If the test of a good production is that it brings new insight into a play and prompts audiences to return to the text, then Henry Irving's Merchant was triumphant. Irving was the foremost actor-manager of the nineteenth century. This implies things about the organisation of his theatre that were instrumental in his production of The Merchant. The artistic hegemony inherent in the actor-manager system reflected the patriarchal structure of Victorian culture in general i.e., the submission of all members of a family to the will of the father. Primary focus, therefore, was on the talents of one individual, not on an entire company as in Shakespeare's theatre: there were no 'sharers' at Irving's Lyceum. This narrative reveals two things: first, the Victorians' fascination with historical accuracy in their stage productions, and second, their attempt to bring a realistic awareness of cultural difference to the portrayal of 'the other'.

in Shakespeare in Performance
Max Reinhardt’s productions of The Merchant of Venice
Boika Sokolova
,
Kirilka Stavreva
, and
J. C. Bulman

The chapter introduces the iterations of The Merchant of Venice throughout the illustrious career of theatre director Max Reinhardt, one of the first practitioners to identify himself in this way. It discusses his shaping of The Merchant into a festive play during a tumultuous era, which saw the rise and fall of the German Empire, the hope and volatility of the Weimar Republic, and the rise of Nazism and anti-Semitism in the 1930s. Reinhardt’s Merchant had 363 performances across Europe. Between 1906 and 1924, it was seen in Prague, Budapest, Vienna, Brussels, Munich, Bucharest, Copenhagen, Oslo, and Stockholm. Over the course of three decades, Reinhardt’s productions, and The Merchant in particular, shaped the work of an entire generation of theatre practitioners, including architects, playwrights, musicians, dancers, actors, directors, and critics. The chapter analyses the unabashed theatricality of Reinhardt’s productions, the integration of technical innovations, meticulous choreography and orchestration of voice and silence, and his concerted effort to bring wider audiences into the theatre. In 1933, his theatre was confiscated, eventually forcing him to emigrate to the USA. He last staged The Merchant as the festive finale of the first Theatre Biennale in Venice in 1934. The detailed discussion of this production builds on contemporary reviews and reports. While Reinhardt worked toward the creation of a far-reaching community based on humanist principles, the fascist cultural-political powers of the 1930s used his theatre art to instil divisiveness and prop up their own cultural agenda.

in Shakespeare in Performance
Boika Sokolova
,
Kirilka Stavreva
, and
J. C. Bulman

The chapter presents key developments in the global history of The Merchant’s cinematic life from the silent to the Hollywood era, from European studios and the Venetian lagoon to New Zealand’s cultural and natural sites and CGI settings. It analyses the four feature-length film adaptations of the play: the outstanding German silent, released in English-speaking countries as The Jew of Mestri, which enhanced the story of Shylock’s motivation for revenge and offered memorable portrayals of Jewish custom and community; the lavish French-Italian drama, Le Marchand de Venise, with intensified romantic narrative plots and a Shylock who refused to be victimised; the heritage drama The Māori Merchant of Venice, directed by Don Selwyn; and the Hollywood feature William Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, directed by Michael Radford and starring Al Pacino and Jeremy Irons. Selwyn’s film, created as a vehicle for reviving Māori language and honour, re-visioned Shakespeare’s play as an alternative New Zealand history. At the same time, it invited a comparative consideration of the Holocaust and the traumas of New Zealand colonisation history, even as it celebrated indigenous cultural resilience. Radford’s dark cinematic drama, in turn, honoured the late twentieth-century theatre tradition of a tragic Shylock, whom it embedded in a history of extreme victimisation of Jewishness. The film complemented religious violence with the final isolation of a homosexual Antonio, and a Jessica caught between divergent identities; it still added comic levity in the romantic line, and occluded the xenophobia of Belmont’s polite society.

in Shakespeare in Performance
Boika Sokolova
,
Kirilka Stavreva
, and
J. C. Bulman

The chapter analyses Peter Zadek’s sustained engagement with The Merchant of Venice, focusing on three of his landmark performances, which challenged the facile philo-Semitic approach to the play, dominant in German productions after the Second World War. In Ulm (1961) and Bochum (1972), the avant-garde director enhanced the entertainment qualities of the play to attract young and working-class audiences, whom he confronted with a vision of Shylock as both a grotesque exaggeration and a vulnerable human being. Even as anti-Semitic stereotypes, reminiscent of Nazi appropriations of the Elizabethan comic villain, shocked theatre-goers, the larger aesthetic mixed grotesque representation with playful irony. The desired effect was to provoke the audience to adopt morally uncomfortable attitudes to the characters and conflicts, and then to compel them to reconsider them. In the influential 1988 production for the Vienna Burgtheater, such ludic provocativeness was replaced with a disciplined study of the corporate operators of the global financial marketplace. Polished and pragmatic, Shylock (performed by Gert Voss) was an indelible part of the world of financial power brokers. Moreover, his dignified exit suggested that he would be returning with the means and determination to win the next battle with his competitors. Revived by the famed Berliner Ensemble, televised, and produced for festival tours in Paris and Edinburgh, this global Merchant dramatised the more insidious manifestations of anti-Semitism, while subverting naturalised notions of a Jewish identity as victimhood.

in Shakespeare in Performance