Saturday, 15 October 2016

Merchant of Venice: Munby’s Modern Spin On An Ageing Concept

by Philippa Noble



A day out of school led 50 Year 11s enthusiastically to a short tour of the Globe Theatre and a drama workshop on a passage of The Merchant of Venice. 

After lunch and a quick glance over a bustling London (within walking distance, of course), we flooded into the Globe, hurriedly finding our seats before a performance we weren’t expecting began playing before us.

For a brief synopsis, please see here.

Those who know the text of Merchant of Venice well found there were many differences between this production and the original. It’s within every director’s right to use poetic licence and take another spin on an old play, yet I have seen multiple reviews voicing concern to how far director Jonathan Munby's production drifted from the “truth”.

The Globe is known, however, for keeping its surroundings as authentic as possible. The minimalist set and the few-to-no props involved in each scene certainly continued this tradition. The costumes, also, were kept looking very period and the colour scheme allowed for a lot of symbolism through clothing. For instance, while all the Venetians (Christian and Jew alike) wore black and red (occasionally brown), Portia doused herself in gold swathes of material. Munby sets aside more characters as “other” than he connects through costuming. Even subtle differences between the majority of red in Christian costumes and the red hats of the Jews enhances the audience's views of isolation and segregation that are firm themes in both this version and the original. I would even go as far as to suggest that the scarcity of red in the Jews’ costumes reinforces thoughts of Christian frivolity and self-centredness compared to the oppressed Jews (albeit subtle, it does link in with themes resonating through other aspects of the play). In the final scene, the Christian attendance at Shylock’s baptism – all in pristine white and perfect dress – contrast Shylock who appears ill fitted to his new costume.

Altered or improvised comedy found in the characters of Gratiano and Nerissa continue the comedic relief usually only seen from Lancelot Gobbo. This allowed for audience participation and engagement from more than one section in the play. Nevertheless, the director’s choice to remove Old Gobbo from an early scene seems to undermine the sympathy for Shylock that is encouraged throughout the play. Lancelot’s dilemma plays out more as a humourous break from the plot than a realisation of how badly he is choosing to treat Shylock. While in these areas the comedy is enhanced, the true nature of the Merchant of Venice in its category of comedy comes under scrutiny. The eventual loss of faith for Shylock is portrayed as a death of hope and spirit compared to the original redemption from Judaism. It could be argued that in this production, the play resounds more with tragedy than comedy.

Another way that Jonathan Munby changes our views on the plot is the way the characters and relationships are presented to us. Pairings such as Bassanio and Portia or Jessica and Lorenzo are put into question as the audience becomes aware of the isolation of Antonio (the supposed eponymous hero) and the betrayal of Lorenzo when Jessica weeps for her father’s faith. It draws into view thoughts of incompatibility between Christians and Jews, and whether Bassanio and Portia could ever be viewed as equals. Firm suggestions of Antonio’s love of Bassanio were shown through an almost-kiss, irrational care, and unconditional aid from Antonio. Portia and Nerissa acted in a very hostile manner towards Jessica after she had converted – perhaps implying that Christians were much less accepting than they claimed. Nevertheless, Nerissa and Gratiano’s relationship seems to be the only wholesome and inevitable love from the entire cast. As a whole, the Christian community was condemned by Munby, and the Jewish population heavily defended.

Despite complaints from some critics about deviation from the play in many other areas, the most noticeable of all was in the ending and the sympathy drawn to Shylock. The final scenes were much darker than the original. Granted, it could be said that Shakespeare’s productions gave a certain amount of sympathy to Shylock. However, with a modern audience and a backdrop of events such as the Holocaust, it is much harder to gain any complexity to Shylock’s character without encouraging sympathy and working in the opposite direction. Whilst Christians were damned by their frivolity, sexuality, and mistreatment of others, Shylock is shown to be more prepared to give up his faith than his property – allowing the audience to question whether his feud with Antonio was because of his beliefs or some skewed version of revenge. The music in the final scene also brings in modern views of equality and interlinking views by letting both Jewish song and Christian baptism intertwine and complement each other.

Finally, strong overarching messages of the play seem to harmonise with modern views. Two main themes are the past Christian privilege and Jewish oppression. These were hinted at in Shakespeare’s version and maybe, since we have more freedom to express these, it was inevitable that it would be exaggerated. Many characters can be criticised such as: the Christian Portia in her treatment of Shylock and Jessica, the Muslim Prince of Morocco in his entitled views of Portia, or the Christian Bassanio in his frivolous ways of living. Sympathy for the Jewish population is enhanced by the Christians’ treatment of them, as well as our own views of human rights.

In conclusion, while many may disapprove of the changes made to this production, I believe it was an incredible play, only building on our own views to gain the complexity of Shylock’s character as would have been seen by Shakespeare’s audience. It is impossible to convey the same depth of thought to a modern audience, as we already believe that certain actions portrayed in the original are wrong. All aspects of this version are incredibly well put together, including the parts of authenticity found in the set and costumes. Apart from a missed opportunity in the removal of Old Gobbo, I cannot pick any faults in the production of this thought-provoking, well-adapted version of the Merchant of Venice. Even in this review, I haven’t covered more than half of the intense symbolism and underlying themes. Jonathan Munby has done a supreme job of working with a seemingly out-dated play.



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