Saturday, May 15, 2010

Merchant of Venice, Brooklynized

Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice

Performed by Watermill Theatre (UK) and Propeller Production

At the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Harvey Theatre

On Friday, May 15th, 2009

A lengthy, painstaking, play-by-play (pun intended ;)

review, analysis and reminiscence:

Beware the length, for I have tried to distill

stage directions, dramatic license,

personal narrative and Shakespearean scripture

from my muddled memories.

Dedicated to

the ICSE English Literature exam,

British English spellers,

and dorky friends,

this is likely fit for not much else!

Custom often dictates that theatrical performances begin out of darkness (on stage) and quiet (in the audience). Coughs subside, electronic gadgets are silenced, lights dim and the heavy stage curtain trembles with anticipation. Then, footsteps as the characters assemble on stage, taking their cues from the blackness, and so the production begins. But not this play. As the audience files into their seats like Tetris shapes forming a dense, colourful array, the stage casually comes alive, too. The set, fully visible in the lit auditorium, is paradoxically inviting: pleasant-faced but grubby men pace about an impasse of jail cells that line the back and sides of the stage, settling into their specific cages. The audience admires the antique (but for those of the glass-half-empty school, the rusted and crumbling) décor of the auditorium and wonders at the bodies already on stage, stretching, bending, sitting – are the actors warming up, has the play already begun? But nighttime falls, the actors are obscured from the audience, and something is about to start – Shakespeare is coming alive!

How would one expect this play to begin? Perhaps with the opening words spoken by a distraught man pondering his despondence; perhaps on a street in Venice, crowded with cheer and chatter? No. In today’s production, Venice is captured inside a prison, and the audience is to witness a band of men telling a tale from behind bars – is this how Shakespeare would have envisioned it? A hearty drum roll stampedes into Act I Scene I: an a cappella percussion performance using prison bars, shoes on hard floors, cries and even a man on the Congos (the troupe performs several beautiful hymns over the course of the play: someone with perfect pitch begins, and the others fall into harmonies and melodies fit for a church!). A guard walks across the stage and blows a whistle and the men scramble from their cells – stacked as two levels so men have to climb out of their cells and ladder down to the stage – to line up for morning roll call. Another man, neither prison guard nor prisoner, in a curious all-white getup, speaks the first words of the play: “Bring forth the Christian and the Jew,” which is not from the original text, but another dramatic license exercised, and effectively. For two men from the line up step forward and the audience is face to face with kind Antonio and Shylock the cur.

With the audience sufficiently distracted by set and speech alike, the cast assumes convention, reassuring all that Shakespeare is still author of this play. “In sooth, I know not why I am so sad,” drones Antonio. As he speaks of his argosies cresting waves towards Tripoli, the Indies and England, the others mill about in their prison quarters, scrubbing the floor, doing push-ups, plotting in a corner and listening to Antonio. One by one, men in the crowd – Salarino, Solanio, Lorenzo, Gratiano and dear Bassanio – retort with entreaties to soothe Antonio’s troubled mind, and thus the cast takes shape. Antonio is robust and big-built, his sadness and “vinegar aspect” seem unworthy of his size and broad shoulders. But in fact it is a looming sadness, deeper than his shadow is tall, and lifted only when he has an opportunity to serve his close friend, Bassanio, whose Scottish accent accentuates his plea to Antonio for a loan of 3,000 ducats to woo a far-away maiden whose reputation has, from Belmont, reached the four corners of the world in excitable whispers, sly winks and love letters that are stained and crumpled with travel. Ornate requests are unnecessary, insists Antonio, claiming that Bassanio but “wind[s] about my love with circumstance,” for he is willingly “prest unto” anything Bassanio wishes. Meanwhile Shylock and his acquaintance lurk in another corner of the stage, ominously listening but not paying attention, as they dream up interest-friendly customer-unfriendly ‘typically Jewish’ schemes. And so far the audience is still looking into a prison, maybe wondering where Venice went, as the plot begins to unfold.

Scene II is a drastic change, as the men clamber into two cells on either side of the stage, clearing the way for a grand entrance. A new cast member, dressed scantily and with a feminine touch to him, announces, with a flick of his shawl, “By my troth, Nerissa, my little body is aweary of this world.” Another charismatic male, but this time playing a woman – for this is an all-male troupe! “You would be, sweet madam,” rejoins another man wearing even less: lacking stockings, he sports briefs and suspenders over bare skin, revealing his lower status – he is Nerissa, Portia’s quick-witted, light-footed maid (and he demonstrates his skills when the suitors arrive to unseal their caskets and seal their fates, with dances and twirls and slights-of-hand!). The audience, like Portia, is disturbed by the clumps of men at stage right and stage left, hankering and clamouring after these attractive and rare females – one expects they do not see many in prison – with crass gestures, hand motions, and other agitated body parts! Portia mourns her future, given the slim pickings of men before her – “I had rather be married to a death’s head with a bone in his mouth” – but her eyes widen when remembering a Venetian of promise named Bassanio. She and Nerissa prepare to receive still more suitors, and the scene swiftly changes to bring the men out of their cages and the women away to their chambers, for the audience is to meet the ultimate antagonist, Shylock, as he negotiates with a desperate Bassanio.

It’s in Scene III that Shylock speaks for the first time, his first words, appropriately, being about money: “Three thousand ducats; well.” Shylock is leaner than Antonio, but not as commanding; he sports a beard and a wry smile that contorts into a sneer when he curses Antonio’s accusations that he, Shylock, is a cruel money lender, imposing interest on innocents while pure-hearted Antonio indulges his clients with not just loans, but leniency. Shylock is both arrogant and defensive – “for sufferance is the badge of all our tribe” – as he scrutinizes Antonio’s standing and, upon meeting Antonio, mocks him – “I hate him for he is a Christian – and his profession with a bond that, if forfeited, would allow Shylock to extort a pound of flesh from Antonio. With the cunning only a Jew could muster, he asks,

Pray you, tell me this;

If he should break his day, what should I gain

By the exaction of the forfeiture?

To buy his favour, I extend this friendship:

If he will take it, so; if not, adieu;

And, for my love, I pray you wrong me not.

when in fact, Shylock will do anything in his power to “feed fat the ancient grudge” he bears the popular and kind-hearted Antonio. The unwitting and pure Antonio agrees to the bond in spite of Bassanio’s concern for “fair terms and a villain’s mind”, leaving the audience reeling in the polar exchanges between the Christian and the Jew, as a prison cage is wheeled to the center of the stage: the audience has moved to Belmont for Act II.

From a second-storey cell in Scene I, a man cheers frenetically by way of dramatic introduction, for he is the Prince of Morocco and has his eyes, heart and complexion of “burnish’d sun” set upon the fair and lovely Portia. He climbs down to the stage floor and bows deep before Portia, as Nerissa skips around the three caskets placed at the front of the stage, bathed in spotlight, each chandeliered by three keys hanging from above upon which an inscription dangles temptingly. Portia warns Prince Morocco with requisite caution ere he makes his choice, and they exit for dinner as “Gobbo, Launcelot Gobbo, good Launcelot or good Gobbo or good Launcelot Gobbo” takes the stage in Scene II to monotonously meander aloud through his thoughts, wondering if and how he can flee his master the Jew, the “very devil incarnal” and serve Bassanio instead. [Note: Old Gobbo does not appear in this rendition of the play, therefore much of the banter in Scene II between Launcelot and his father is not included.] Bassanio consents with Christian generosity, moving Launcelot to unexpected eloquence: “The old proverb is very well parted between my master Shylock and you, sir: you hath the grace of God, sir, and he hath enough.” Bassanio advises this same eloquence to Gratiano who wishes to accompany him to Belmont, asking that he “allay with some cold drops of modesty thy skipping spirit”, and the latter promises to acquire the air of “one well studied in a sad ostent” for their voyage together – but not before he and his friends “purpose merriment” at the masquerade ball that night!

Evening is nigh in Scene III and Launcelot bids adieu to sweet Jessica (a man with a headscarf and pitchy voice that lend sufficient ambiguity to the actor’s gender) chez Shylock, who entrusts him with a note to her beloved Lorenzo. As she disowns herself from her father’s behaviour, acknowledging lineage only “to his blood” and not “to his manners”, her lover plans in Scene IV to “take her from her father’s house” that same night, in disguise. Shylock is reluctant to leave his home and daughter in Scene V for a masquerade party with “Christian fools with varnish’d faces”, but motivates himself to “go in hate, to feed upon the prodigal Christian” which he loves to do. The set is still before prison cells which, stacked and aligned as they are, they become a two storey house with many doors and windows. Shylock hides his money in the tank of a commode and wrings his wrists in front of a bunk bed in disarray – “there is some ill a-brewing towards my rest” – giving the audience a glimpse into the miserly lifestyle of wretched Shylock and his helpless daughter. With the moon on its ascent in Scene VI, Lorenzo meets his friends outside Shylock’s house where they make haste with Jessica and her father’s money, “for the close night doth play the runaway” and Lorenzo assures himself, his friends and the audience that he loves Jessica “heartily” and intends to enshrine her “in my constant soul”.

Scene VII has the audience and cast back in Belmont. A nourished Prince Morocco advances towards the caskets while Portia watches from an isolated cell, perhaps her room, cloaked in anxiety and shrouded behind cell bars that imply a will-he-or-won’t-he sentiment. Morocco is brazen, brash and, ultimately, blighted: his incorrect reasoning that “A golden mind stoops not to shows of dross” leads him to the golden casket where he expects “an angel in a golden bed lies all within”. Having pranced around the stage, lauded his desired conquest and cleansed his logic of tainted lead, he unlocks the golden casket – the biggest one on the stage – to reveal a scroll rebuking his efforts. Learning that “Gilded tombs do worms infold,” he parts with a heavy heart and a “labour lost”.

Disappointment carries over into Scene VIII where Antonio’s friends worry about Shylock’s “passion so confused at losing both daughter and ducats, and the consequences on Antonio if his vessels, “richly fraught”, end up “miscarried” and for naught. They pause to marvel at Antonio’s magnanimity – “a kinder gentleman treads not the earth” – and his sincere blessings to Bassanio “with affection wondrous sensible” when they parted, Bassanio hoping to win a heart and Antonio hoping not to forfeit his.

Back in Belmont for Scene IX, the next daring Prince, of Arragon, marches purposefully about the stage, meticulously swearing the oath that, if he chooses wrong, he will leave at once, containing his choice as confidential regret so as not to bias other suitors. He is tall and thin, dressed impeccably and with a twinkle in his eye. He claps his hands and snaps his fingers and rubs his palms invigoratingly – he is ready. He jumps into the fray with an ego perhaps surpassing Prince Morocco, vowing not to “jump with common spirits” and choose what so many others desire. Refusing to dilute his esteemed love with the superficiality of the “barbarous multitudes” below him,

for who shall go about

To cozen fortune and be honourable

Without the stamp of merit?

He attests to his fully deserved dignity and selects the silver casket. His long-spun logic yields but a mirror, showing him “the portrait of a blinking idiot” and revealing to him too late his foolish reasoning. He concedes, however, with a realistic farewell: With one fool’s head I came to woo, But I go away with two.” Portia, stepping out of her barred chambers wonders who will rescue her from these “desperate fools”, and is presently informed of an “ambassador of love” approaching Belmont. Could this be the man who starts the next chapter of Portia’s life?

Suspense heralds Act III Scene I as well, as Antonio’s friends fear the words for his ships “wrecked on the narrow ships”. Shylock appears, curious about Antonio and destroyed about Jessica, and catches the two men at a vulnerable time. Taunts from Salarino about Jessica causes Shylock to attack him like a snake: instantly he has him in a chokehold. Enraged at what is already lost and what could still be lost, he beats Salarino and ends up ripping Salarino’s eye out of his socket. Solanio and others gang up on Shylock, throwing chairs at him. Releasing Salarino, Shylock takes comfort in his bond with Antonio, at least there he has some control. But would he really extract a pound of flesh? Of course, he roars! “If it will feed nothing else, it will feed my revenge.” Dodging chairs and other flying objects, circling the stage with Antonio’s followers, Shylock screams about the rights of a Jew, “Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands…? If you prick us, do we not bleed?...and if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?” The fight is over only when Shylock’s servant Tubal arrives with news of Antonio’s ships, at which point Solanio helps a blinded, battered Salarino off stage. Grieving daughter and ducats, he delights at Antonio’s misfortunes: “I’ll plague him; I’ll torture him: I am glad of it.”

Scene II begins with caution cast over Belmont. Portia, engaging Bassanio from her cage, urges him to “tarry”. Bassanio confesses an urgent, desperate love, “but let me to my fortune and the caskets,” so as not to “live upon the rack” any longer, but to become his destiny. Portia instructs there to be song, and the crowd on stage – Portia, Nerissa, Gratiano and others – begin a beautiful hymn, Gratiano serenading the audience with Bassanio’s thoughts – “where is fancy bred?” Bassanio, inspecting the three caskets, attentively notes that “the world is still deceived with ornament” that is “but the guiled shore to a most dangerous sea.” Rejecting extravagance, he confidently seizes the inscription to the leaden casket whose “paleness moves me more than eloquence,” yanks the key and thrusts it into the box. Joy and exaltation follow, from Bassanio, Portia, Gratiano and Nerissa – almost culminating in a kiss (between two men!). All are blissful in disbelief, humbling themselves before their prize – Portia as an “unlesson’d girl, unschool’d, unpractised” and Bassanio “doubtful whether what I see be true”. Love is consummated with a ring Portia gifts Bassanio and a vow between Gratiano “who beheld the maid” and pursued Nerissa while Bassanio confronted the caskets. But company interrupts: Lorenzo, Jessica and Solanio arrive with a letter from Antonio containing “few of the unpleasant’st words that ever blotted paper,” for they doom their author to death at the hand of an undeserving Jew. Bassanio’s Scottish accents spits over Antonio’s woes, and Portia and him conspire to help Antonio before they lie as husband and wife.

Scene III is, most appropriately to the stage, between Shylock, Salarino, Antonio and a Gaoler. Antonio stands lugubriously in a jail cell located center stage while Shylock rails at him with lunatic obsession:

I’ll have my bond; I will not hear thee speak:

I’ll have my bond; and therefore speak no more…

I’ll have no speaking; I will have my bond.

The others stand about with embarrassing and frustrating impotence; nothing can be done to evade the law which, “if it be denied, ‘t will much impeach the justice” of Venice. Antonio prays only that his eyes may rest on Bassanio one last time before his execution the following day. Meanwhile, Belmont bustles with Portia’s plans in Scene IV who, claiming refuge in a nearby monastery, dispatches a servant for disguises and qualifications as a doctor. She and Nerissa are to be “both accoutered like young men” with bravado, a “manly stride” and access to the court of Venice.

Scene V gently prefaces the climactic court scene with some light-hearted banter of Jewish-Christian enmity. Launcelot, ne’er one to mince his words, glibly fears for Jessica, “for truly I think you are damned,” since marrying a Christian does nothing but “raise the price of hogs.” Lorenzo quickly appeases his new bride, but not before chastising Launcelot with some verbal ammunition and “tricksy word” of his own. Humor mixes with hunger and they are off to dinner, leaving the audience staring at empty jail cells and wondering what is to become of Antonio.

Act IV Scene I: A court of justice locked up in a prison; advocates trying to read a bond between the lines. A wall of jail cells whose bars look like teeth bared at the unfortunate Antonio, who stands surrendered to a prison cell. The Duke, administering the trial, is the same man in all white from the opening scene of the play, and the audience understands his position in this final act of the play. This Duke feels for Antonio, and so does the rest of the court – indeed, a mournful song is being sung by the men, creating it out of nowhere yet again, and dividing it into four parts of equal and perfect harmony – but justice belongs to the law which is lettered in a bond which is bound to a pound of Antonio’s flesh, and there seems no way out. Shylock strides in, with a weighing scale in one hand, his bond in the other and a pristine sneer on his face. The Duke begs Shylock for mercy one final time, remarking that, “touch’d with human gentleness and love”, Shylock ought to provide “a gentle answer.” Shylock rejects the gentle and gentile, invoking a whimsical façade of a reason to harm Antonio: “for affection, mistress of passion, sways it to the mood of what it likes or loathes,” when in fact, “hates any man the thing he would not kill?” Thus he is induced, out of a forest of revenge overcast by clouds of rage, to carry out the bond instead of granting pardon. Scorning the bags of ducats Bassanio throws at him, causing coins to rain and scatter everywhere, Shylock calls up to the Duke, whose seat extends out of one of the top storey jail cells and give him a seat of authority and power, “I stand for judgement: answer; shall I have it?” The Duke has a final caveat: that the distinguished Doctor Bellario, from Padua, be represented at the court. Lo and behold, Nerissa and Portia, clerk and doctor, manifest to the court’s “gracious acceptance, whose trial shall better publish his commendation.” There is a visible groan of despair at the doctor’s appearance – he seems young, inexperienced and lost. “Which is the merchant here, and which the Jew?” he seeks, prompting court members to throw their hands up – does the doctor not even know this much? – and the audience to titter knowingly about Portia’s latent cunning. The Duke then echoes his words from the outset of the play some two hours before: “Antonio and old Shylock, both stand forth.” The audience has finally traveled full circle, from roll call in the prison to roll call of those assembled at Antonio’s trial. Portia looks strange to the audience and her own husband, for she is bulky in a trenchcoat and paces with a heavy, important tread. And yet, she turns to Antonio (which could have been this particular director’s stage direction) and asks, “Is your name Shylock?” The audience smiles and the court gasps and Shylock speaks up boldly, encouraged by the youth’s incompetence: “Shylock is my name.” Portia wastes no time, she is immediately upon him to “be merciful” with that time-tested, pro-faith, globally transacted speech about mercy (that brings back memories of English class on hot afternoons in Cathedral and delights me to publish here) –

The quality of mercy is not strain’d

It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven

Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;

It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:

’T is mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes

The throned monarch better than his crown;

His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,

The attribute to awe and majesty,

Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings,

It is an attribute to God himself;

And earthly power doth then show likest God’s

When mercy seasons justice. Therefore Jew,

Though justice be thy plea, consider this,

That, in the course of justice, none of us

Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;

And that same prayer doth teach us all to render

The deeds of mercy

Noting Shylock’s crazed look, Portia acknowledges to the court that “there is no power in Venice can alter a decree established,” instantly winning Shylock’s praise, which he has dealt stingily until now. The bond passes hands, exchanges mathematical calculations for ducats “thrice thy money,” and, weightlessly floating about the court, ekes a deeper and more deadly pound from Antonio for each time it is read aloud. When Portia recommends “some surgeon” to attend to Antonio’s wounds once the deed is done, Shylock refuses: “I cannot find it; ’t is not in the bond” – this apparent death sentence is to become Antonio’s saviour.

By now Antonio has stripped – his shirt and jacket deliberately unbuttoned, folded and draped over a caring man’s arm – and he stands tall, half naked, with eyes both glaring and defeated staring into an uncertain future. He bids a fond farewell to his friend, reminding him with the majesty of a fallen soldier devoted to his country, “repent but you that you shall lose your friend, and he repents not that he pays your debt.” Bassanio has fallen at Antonio’s knees and holds his wrist close to his lips to kiss them and moisten with his tears. Moved, he cries, “life itself, my wife, and all the world, are not with me esteem’d above thy life” and the audience suffers pangs of regret and separation as Portia stamps her delicate foot and impatiently reminds Bassanio that his wife “would give you little thanks for that”. Shylock interrupts the quibbling with the vigorous sharpening of a knife he has drawn out of his pocket, that he brings closer and closer to Antonio’s chest. Prolonging the suspense, he uses a pen to mark where on Antonio’s torso he wishes to carve out the pound – closest to his heart, per the bond – and the audience’s collective heart thuds with every passing second. Antonio trembles slightly, eyes and teeth gritted together; the court holds its breath; Portia and Nerissa stare wildly at the bond hoping for inspiration and Shylock practices sinking his knife into willing flesh. And then, just as Shylock is about to thrust the knife into skin, Portia shouts, “Tarry!”

The bond explicitly states that Shylock may have a pound of flesh and affords for nothing else, neither surgeon nor money – nor blood! Portia rules that, per the bond, ‘if thou dost shed one drop of Christian blood, thy lands and goods are, by the laws of Venice, confiscate unto the state of Venice,” and the play peaks at its climax. Antonio’s friends are flooded with relief, and they call out to the “upright,” “learned” judge to preach some more. Shylock awkwardly asks for his original bond amount, and when that is refused, settles for his principal. “Why then the devil give him good of it!” he shouts, tail between his legs. But Portia yanks on his leash one more time, accusing him that “directly and indirectly too thou has contrived against the very life of the defendant,” and is, by law, at the mercy of the court. The Duke on high and Antonio, dressed and renewed, grant pardon, swiftly whisking Shylock’s money into trusts for his estranged daughter and diverting his religious pursuit to the more noble ways of a Christian. Shylock, by now on the floor, broken and weak, can hardly move. Refuged in the fetal position, eyes closed, voice murmuring, he succumbs to Antonio’s wishes, and crawls away from the court’s jeers. Exit Shylock.

His departure marks an abrupt shift in tone and gravity: Bassanio offers all of himself to Portia the doctor who slyly asks him for his ring. Bassanio’s refusals encourages Portia’s demands and emboldens her love for him and, happy with the failed attempt, shares a triumphant wink with Nerissa before they exeunt the stage. Scene II wraps up the case, as Portia and Nerissa confirm Shylock’s signature on the deed (he is absent from the stage) and hasten to Belmont before their freshly married husbands arrive, refreshed by victory and vindicated for flesh of their own! The woman are interrupted by Gratiano who bears a ring for Portia, inducing Nerissa to seduce her ring from Gratiano as well – they exit the stage with Nerissa calling after Gratiano, somewhat comically, “Sir, I would speak with you.”

The moon is back in Act V Scene I, as are its keen followers, Lorenzo and Jessica, who tread and trip softly through the threshes of new-found love, nervously finding their footing with each other. Launcelot and others come as harbingers of Portia and Nerissa as well as a “horn full of good news”. Lorenzo is moved to excitement and eloquence, praising the moon and his lady love, while the troupe showers gentle musical notes across the stage and onto the audience, as they are wont to do, and so graciously! Portia and Nerissa arrive, and close at their heels are Bassanio, Antonio, Gratiano and other revellers from the court. While Bassanio introduces his dearest friend to his dainty wife, quarrel abound from off stage – Nerissa chases after a frantic Gratiano and slaps him silly, now onstage, and the audience is greatly entertained by the ensuing tussle over a missing ring. Portia boasts that her Bassanio would never do such a thing, and is quickly proven wrong by a desperate Gratiano. The stage is aflame with catty women despising the men – those lowly creatures! – before them, mute to their husbands’ pleas. Once satisfied with her own trickery, Portia quells the torment with a truce, brandishing the letter that allowed her into court some hours earlier: “There you shall find that Portia was the doctor, Nerissa there her clerk”. With momentum, she announces that Antonio’s ships are in fact safe, and Nerissa echoes the sentiments for Lorenzo, who is to inherit Shylock’s assets when the Jew is no longer. It is agreed that Portia and Nerissa have outdone themselves, having doled out “manna in the way of starved people”, and they accept it with an invitation for those “not satisfied of these events at full” to probe – and penetrate – them further in the bedroom!

Winking, smiling, yawning, rejoicing, the cast bows, the curtain sweeps them away and the audience breaks into applause, as custom often dictates.

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