The random witterings of Jonathan Morris, writer.

Thursday, 30 January 2014

Flesh And Blood

Review, 2006, BBC Shakespeare...



THE MERCHANT OF VENICE

Tricky one, this. Contentious. Possibly offensive to modern sensibilities.

But I'll confront it head on.

The Merchant of Venice is a poof.

Antonio is, clearly, an uphill dorothy. He is a homosexualist. He is a majestic old queen. He sings along with the showtunes. He swishes the curtains. Antonio is gay, gay, gay for Bassanio.

The evidence? Well, Antonio spends a lot of his time down at the Rialto with sailors. He's Italian, even worse, he's Venetian. He hasn't got any money because he keeps on lending all his cash to pretty boy Bassanio. But when Bassanio comes crawling back to him asking for more money, Antonio can't help himself.

The only other possible explanation for it is that Antonio is some sort of father-figure for Bassanio, but that isn't in the play. Whereas Antonio going on about how much he loves Bassanio, and how well Bassanio fills his codpiece, and how firm and smooth his shoulders are, is.

I don't think Antonio is a negative depiction of a homosexualizer. He is persecuted for his gaiety, but he retains a quiet dignity and inner strength. Even when Bassiano decides that he needs some extra money in order to chat up a pretty young girl called Portia, Antonio gives him his blessing (and his Maestro card and pin number). After all, even after Bassiano and Portia are married Bassiano will still continue to be Antonio's special chum. They are modern like that.

So that's one thing.

Another way in which this play is possibly un-PC is in how it represents foreigners. Because the pretty young girl called Portia is being chatted up by lads of all flags. And, in true Mind Your Racism style, they are each stereotypical embodiments of their national characteristics. One after another they turn up, wearing ridiculous hats, doing their best to charm their way into her knickers.

The Neapolitan, for instance, is a country bumpkin, who probably sleeps with his horse. The Palatine is a city boy who is utterly miserable and has no sense of humour. Then there's the French guy, who is utterly unreliable. The English guy, who has travelled all the way to Italy without being able to speak any languages apart from English (and who is dressed like a bad tourist). The Scottish guy, meanwhile, ran out of money en route and had to borrow money off of the Englishman and the Frenchman. The German is drunk and boorish. The Spaniard is arrogant. And the Moroccan (i.e. the black guy) can't help going on about how handsome he is, i.e.

"I tell thee lady, this aspect of mine, hath fear'd the valiant. By my love, I swear, the best-regarded virgins of our clime have lov'd it too."

What he's doing there is he is implying he has a massive cock.

Fortunately all these guys attempts to win Portia's hand in marriage fail (more of which, later). Portia's quite glad that the Moroccan gets sent home because she doesn't like darkies.

So to recap. The lead character is a gay, and fancies the male romantic interest, who (at the very least) leads him on. The female romantic interest is a dyed-in-the-wool racist. Many of the jokes in the first couple of acts are about foreigners being stupid. And, worst of all

THE VILLAIN'S A JEW.

Now this is where it gets tricky. Because the depiction of Shylock is, well, schizophrenic. To begin with, he is definitely a villain in the Richard III mould. But, like Richard III, he is funny, clever, and very likeable. Shylock is also sympathetic. Bad shit happens to him. We understand why he does what he does, he’s never evil for its own sake (unlike Richard III), he has been (reluctantly) made a villain by circumstances. Or as he puts it

“If a Jew wrongs a Christian, what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example? Why, revenge. The villainy you teach me, I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better my instruction.”

As I said, horrible stuff happens to him. His daughter runs off to marry a Christian, taking most of his money and jewellery with her. When he is seen grieving about this in public, people mock him. Antonio spits on him and calls him names and tries to turn his friends against him. Salerio (played by John Rhys-Davies before he became a gnome) takes the piss out of him something chronic.

And, at the end of the play, Shylock loses half of his worldly goods and is forced, on pain of death, to renounce his faith.

This is moving stuff. You feel for him, you really do.

On the other hand, and this is where an odd sort of duality comes into play, there is nevertheless the fact that he sometimes does act like a racist caricature. For instance, when he is grieving in public, he seems to be more upset about the loss of his money than the loss of his daughter, and says he would prefer it if she was dead if it meant he could get his jewellery back.

The duality is twofold. God, did I just write that? I sound a total arse. Never mind. But duality one is the schizophrenic way the character is written. He's inconsistent, but this doesn't feel like inconsistent writing, more a depiction of a rounded, three-dimensional character. Duality two is in the performance. Because we live in modern times, the actor and director are working to underplay the racist aspect. Which means that some of the crowd-pleasing Semite-bashing is played ironically, as though Shylock is self-parodying his own Jewishness.

For instance, there is that fantastic speech where he goes on about “Does not a Jew bleed?” etc. As performed nowadays, this is heartrending stuff. It's a compelling argument. But nevertheless I can't help feeling that it is written as a comic monologue at the expense of Jewish self-justification. That is how it gets its power when it hits the 'revenge' punchline I quoted above - he's turning on the audience, who have been laughing at him up to this point.

Wonderfully, the BBC production gets this.

Nevertheless, though, what is fascinating about Shylock as a character is both that he is a three-dimensional character trapped inside a comedy stereotype and is, nowadays, played as a serious character, rather than a comic character.

I mean, he’s a funny guy. He cracks a very amusing joke in Act 4 about people who can't help pissing themselves whenever they hear bagpipes being played.

The danger with playing him seriously, though, is that it is his comic persona that makes him endearing. Without it, he comes across as simply embittered.

I don't know what the solution is. Maybe one day we won't feel uncomfortable about portraying a Jew as an avaricious money-lender and we can go, 'Okay, so Shylock is a bit of a money-grabbing bastard who happens to be Jewish, but that doesn't mean that this play is saying that all Jews are money-grabbing bastards, just that this one is, and has very good reasons for being the way he is'

Because this play isn't anti-Semitic. Not really. That is the one thing it fails at. Shylock is another example - the most glorious example - of Shakespeare being unable to write clich├ęd characters.

Indeed, Shylock takes over the play. By act 2 you've forgotten all about Antonio, the ostensible lead. I feel that Shakespeare got bored with Antonio, who barely appears in the rest of the play, and who loses his 'melancholy' to become little more than a cipher - and decided to concentrate on the far-more-interesting Shylock instead.

Similarly, Gratiano, who is written as a proper character in act 1, loses his idiosyncrasies in the rest of the play, and the clown double act of Launcelot and Gobbo thankfully all-but-vanishes halfway through (because Shylock is funnier than Gobbo, though Gobbo does have a wonderfully funny the-world's-worst-job-interview scene).

Anyway, if I haven't made it clear yet, I love this play. It's f*cking brilliant.

It shouldn't work, because structurally, it is a mess. It is two stories shoved together. Act 4 is courtroom drama. Act 5 is romantic comedy. It's all over the place, and yet somehow it all hangs together, so we can have, in the same scene, Shylock undergoing emotional agony alongside the cappuccino nonsense of boys not recognising their wives because they've dressed up as boys.

It is that messiness that makes it so compelling and fascinating. It does strange things, it is unpredictable, it is magical and romantic and complex, kind of like Venice itself.

And the bit about the quality of mercy is just gorgeous. You can sign me up for the religion that makes that line one of its constitution.

The story? Briefly. Bassanio needs some money to woo Portia. He borrows it off of Antonio, who in turn borrows it off the Jew, Shylock. Shylock gives Antonio a special offer - no compound interest, but if you don't pay up on time, I get my poundaflesh. Antonio agrees to this, because he has some investments which are due to pay up soon, and they draw up a contract.

Shylock is played by Warren Mitchell. Brilliantly. Bassanio is played, also rather well, by John Nettles. All those series of Bergerac and I never knew he could act.

His pockets bulging with money and tumescent anticipation, Bassanio heads off to see Portia. With him is Gratiano, another of Shakespeare's the-hero's-chum-who- talks-shit- all-the-time characters. Or, as Bassanio puts it

“Gratiano speaks an infinite deal of nothing... his reasons are as two grains of wheat hid in two bushels of chaff; you shall seek all day ere you find them, and when you have them, they are not worth the search.”

Gratiano is played by a young Kenneth Cranham, who, bizarrely, looks a bit like a fat REDACTED.

Portia is a lovely young girl (played here by Gemma Jones, who is very good but old enough to be Portia's mother) and she hangs out with her chum Nerissa (played by Susan Jameson, who really should’ve got to play Portia, but never mind).

Now, this is where it becomes fun. Portia's late dad prepared a special test for his daughter's suitors. It involves three boxes, one gold, one silver, one lead. Pick the right one and you win the girl. Pick the wrong one and you must swear an oath saying you will never have sex for the rest of your life.

That's the test all the boys from the different countries have been attempting and failing. Each of the boxes has a riddle written on it. It's a bit like 3-2-1, except without Chris Emmett, Caroline Monro or Louise English, currently appearing in Babes in the Wood, Croydon.

Anyway, it comes to Bassanio's turn to have a go at the boxes game. Which will he pick? By this point the audience knows which box is the right one and are all shouting out. “PICK LEAD YOU SILLY BASTARD!”

The lights suddenly go down as searchlights sweep across the studio. Bassanio is bathed in a blue glow. The music goes diddly-do, diddily-do, diddily-do. The suspense is electric.

Bassanio picks lead. Portia checks, “Is that your final answer?”

Bassanio nods. Portia waits for some moments, then crosses over to the centre of the room where a table waits with an old-fashioned black bakelite telephone.

She calls the banker. He is offering Bassanio three thousand ducats. Will Bassanio take it? Deal or no deal?

Bassanio sticks with the box made of lead.

We hear some orchestral stabs. DOOF! DOOF! DO-DOOF!

He opens the box. It contains a bit of paper saying “Congratulations! You have won Bully's special prize of Portia's hand in marriage!”

Everyone cheers. And I know I'm being sarky, but it is extraordinary how Shakespeare manages to ramp up the tension about whether Bassanio will pick the right box, and even when we know he's picked the right one we're still on the edge of our seats.

I mean, it's not as good as A Midsummer Night's Dream but Shakespeare was clearly on a roll at this point in his career. He really was bashing out the good stuff.

So that's the first three acts. All the boys and girls get married, and the girls give the boys wedding rings which they promise to wear forever. Remember this, it will become important later.

We then learn that Antonio's investments have all fallen through - they were all reliant on young, handsome sailors not running off with his money - and he has defaulted on his loan to Shylock. And Shylock wants his poundaflesh.

Act four, and it's courtroom drama. Shylock has a strong case. Antonio signed a contract, he agreed to the deal. All Shylock is doing is obeying the law in sticking to his side of the contract.

The audience jeers. BOO, JEW!

But who should turn up but Portia, dressed as a male hot-shot lawyer. She inspects the contract, and agrees that Shylock is absolutely right, he can have his poundaflesh. Shylock draws his knife and prepares to cut a lump out of Antonio's chest.

The audience collectively steps back in amazement. There's a bit of a crush at the back.

Bassanio (who is in the courtroom, but who doesn't recognise Portia, despite the fact that she's his wife) shouts out that he would rather his wife was dead if it meant that Antonio could live.

See, I said he was gay. Portia is none-too-pleased to hear this.

Nevertheless, she defends Antonio with alacrity. What she does is essentially she nails Shylock on the small print. The contract stipulates a poundaflesh, but doesn't allow for any bloodletting, and if Shylock accidentally cuts slightly more than a pound, or slightly less, then he’s in breach of contract.

Shylock knows he's f*cked and decides that he doesn't want his poundaflesh after all. However, Portia is one f*cking hot-shot lawyer (and no longer the wet, flannelly drip of a girl she was in the first half of this play) and she proves that Shylock has broken the law by attempting to murder Antonio, therefore all his money is forfeit.

The audience cheers. And throws bits of rotten lettuce at the Jew.

Shylock pleads for mercy and gets it. He gets to keep half his money - if he agrees to giving the other half to his daughter's husband, and converts to Christianity.

Now, to our modern ears, that's one hell of a bummer. But to a Christian audience back in the 16th century, this would be a happy ending. As far as they were concerned, this would mean Shylock would have been saved. It just doesn't come over that way in the 21st century.

Bassanio is so grateful that Antonio isn't going to be killed that he speaks with Portia (thinking she's a male lawyer, remember) and says 'Is there anything I can do to repay you?' She says, 'Yeah, give us that ring.' 'What ring?' That ring, the one on your finger!' 'Oh that ring!'

And so Bassanio gives Portia his wedding ring (and later, Gratiano similarly gives Nessina his wedding ring).

Act 5, and the boys return to the island where the girls live. The girls manage to get back just in time and change out of their transvestite outfits to greet the boys as they get off the boat.

And then the shit hits the fans. 'WHAT THE F*CK HAVE YOU DONE WITH OUR WEDDING RINGS! YOU PROMISED TO WEAR THEM FOREVER!'

It's all very playful, and heart-warming, as the boys get one over on the boys and treat them a well-deserved lesson in something or other. Eventually the girls own up to their plan, and the play sort of ends with a huge climactic barrage of jokes about the imminent sexual athletics that the boys and girls plan to get up to for the next couple of days. And why not?

And Antonio goes off and has a wank or something, presumably.

You can watch it on Youtube here.

Next up : Henry IV Part One

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