Last night I finally saw The Merchant of Venice in Central Park, directed by Daniel Sullivan with Al Pacino as Shylock. I am, generally, a skeptic of productions that treat the play as something other than a comedy, particularly as a tragedy with Shylock as the tragic hero, and this was an example of same. I feel such productions unbalance the play, making two-thirds of the action seem superfluous, and I also find you have to work hard against the text to make Shylock into anything but a villain at the start.

But this production was an exception to my rule, one in which Shylock did indeed come off as a tragic figure, but that manage to achieve that without working too hard against the text.

Macready ShylockIn effect, the production said: yes, Shylock is a villain, from the first; an unpleasant, conniving, greedy, cold, miserly, nasty man, bent if not on killing Antonio certainly getting him at his mercy. Before he has suffered the pain and humiliation of his daughter’s flight and theft, Shylock is already plotting villainy, and the casual anti-Semitism and hypocrisy of the Christian society around him does not begin to justify his bad character (nor could it). But once he has suffered that great loss, he turns implacably murderous, and it is Pacino’s achievement that it is when he becomes most plainly bent on murder that we find his Shylock most human, and most sympathetic.

The production deals with the anti-Semitism of the play by subtly reminding us that this is not the story of the Jew but of a Jew – of Shylock – and that even this Jew is no more than human. That’s the point of Shylock’s famous “hath not a Jew eyes” speech – he’s not saying to the Christians that he is as human as they, and not less than human. He’s saying he’s as human as they – and not more than human. They expect him to shrug off wounds that would make a saint bleed – would they do so? Wouldn’t they seek bloody revenge if so provoked? Then why shouldn’t he? He’s only human. And, by the same token (though he doesn’t say this), he’s not a devil, not a supernatural creature of evil. He’s only human.

The reminders that Shylock is just one man, and neither the representative of all Jewry nor some kind of devil, come at three points in the play. First, Tubal, Shylock’s co-religionist, shows alarm when Shylock reveals his vengeful plan. He’s not strong enough to actually object (no objection is in the text, for one thing) but he is obviously scared and disturbed. Second, Shylock himself, at the trial, has to visibly gather his strength to steel himself to do the deed. One has the sense of a man who is fighting his own humane impulses, forcing them down, committing himself voluntarily to a course that, under normal circumstances, he would not consider. This Shylock does not seem to be hesitating because of what Portia says. It’s a drama internal to him, and it takes a great actor like Pacino to pull it off. Finally, the director added a wordless scene after the trial, right before the return to Belmont, depicting the baptism of Shylock. After being immersed, Shylock is helped out of the pool by Tubal and a young Jewish boy, who are clearly willing to help him and take him in even though he has just been cut off from the community by conversion. But Shylock rejects them, and walks off alone, vaguely in the direction of the Christians, but not to join them or to be welcomed by them. While none of this is in the text, and, I would argue, is not really in the spirit of the text as a whole, it’s all stuff you can get away with – it doesn’t obviously run counter to the text. And it does a great deal to make Shylock plausible as a solitary villain, and one with tragic dimension, rather than the embodiment of some ancestral Jewish evil.

As for unbalancing the play, Sullivan deals with this by cutting out much of the comedy and highlighting the problem aspects of the romantic comedy. In particular, Lily Rabe’s Portia goes on a very interesting journey. My own read on the Portia-Bassanio story is rather cynical. He’s a shallow fortune-hunter, and she takes him precisely for his faults as much as his virtues; his shallowness and soft-headedness tell her that he’ll be easily mastered, no threat to her as mistress of her house and of the fortune that he thinks is his. She is no more betrayed by his disposal of the ring than she is doubtful of her inevitable triumph over Shylock: she knows the law, and she knows Bassanio, and the business with the ring is as cunningly-laid a trap for her husband (and for Antonio, who she binds far more effectively than Shylock ever did) as was the trap she laid in court to catch the Jew.

That’s my read from the text. But that’s not what Rabe gives us. Her Portia starts rather innocent, genuinely besotted with Bassanio, and when he does, in fact, give her the ring, she is quietly shattered. She staggers home with Nerissa and wonders how she’ll ever feel sure in her marriage again. It’s Antonio who traps himself, offering himself once more as surety, and this she seizes upon. She ends as the sovereign over all in Belmont, but she doesn’t start there; she goes on quite a journey, in fact. Do I buy it? Not entirely – in particular, I have a hard time squaring the Portia we get at the outset with the woman who so thoroughly triumphs at court, and who is, at the end, able to summon lost fortunes from the deep without a word of explanation. But I’ll admit, Rabe’s is a far more sympathetic and complex character than the Portia I have in mind, and is probably a necessary choice in a production like this that forgoes comedy so as not to have the love story jar next to the downfall of Shylock.

Hamish Linklater’s Bassanio and Byron Jennings’ Antonio gave me more what I expected, and left me well satisfied with what I was given. Jennings makes a rather old Antonio, but I think that’s all to the good – Bassanio becomes his unwitting Bosie, whom his Antonio dotes on manipulatively, wanting nothing more than that the Jew should rip out his heart so that he might lay it at his beloved’s feet. All this is conveyed very subtly, and Bassanio seems blessedly clueless about the whole thing.

Jessica and Lorenzo are a bit more of a problem. Their trajectory is correct – their love curdles almost as soon as they reach Belmont, that much is clear from the text, but what’s missing from their performance is any idea of the source of the sourness that caused it to curdle. She’s Jewish, and he finds he can’t actually deal with that? She realizes he’s just after her money, and feels betrayed? He likes to sleep with the window open but she keeps the window closed? We don’t really have a clue, and do they failure of their romance fails to have meaning. Tacking on a moment of regret for what has happened to her father, meanwhile, which seems to be de riguer these days, always strikes me as rather against the text, but if you’re going to try that you need to set up some basis for that regret in the earlier relationship between father and daughter, which this production does not do.

The rest of the case is generally excellent, particularly the lusty pair of Nerissa (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) and Gratiano (Jesse L. Martin). The only glaring weakness is Jesse Tyler Ferguson’s Launcelot Gobbo, whose only purpose is to serve as comic relief, but who is never actually funny. But given that this production cuts virtually all the jokes, downplays those that remain, and moves at a pace more suited to a romance, or to All’s Well That Ends Well than to a comedy, I’m not sure Ferguson is ultimately to blame.

The set will likely have to be completely redone for the Broadway run to come, but I found it very effective, a series of concentric fences dividing Jewish and Christian Venice. The late-19th century period costumes are elegant, if more flattering to the peacockish men than to the women.

I’ll give more thoughts on the play, rather than the production, in another post. For this production, it was an exceptionally strong take on the play, particularly given that it had to work uphill against my own predilections, and well worth a turn on Broadway.

My last review of a production of Merchant, of the 2007 production at Stratford, with, frankly, too much discussion of the play rather than the production all mixed together, can be found here.