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The Merchant of Vegas, Onstage in London

Shakespeare’s prickly classic gets a timely update in new production

Tal Kra-Oz
January 28, 2015
Emily Plumtree as Nerissa and Susannah Fielding as Portia in 'The Merchant of Venice.' (Ellie Kurtz)
Emily Plumtree as Nerissa and Susannah Fielding as Portia in 'The Merchant of Venice.' (Ellie Kurtz)

These are strange days for The Merchant of Venice in London. In the aftermath of the recent Paris terror attacks, tensions in the United Kingdom run high: the chief of MI5 recently said that an attack in the U.K. was “highly likely.” Anti-Semitic violence was on the rise in 2014, even if reports of pessimism amongst Britain’s Jews may have been overhyped. The Merchant of Venice has always been the most problematic of Shakespeare’s problem plays; even when things are quiet, it makes audiences uneasy. But Rupert Goold’s new production of the play, which opened last month at the Almeida Theatre in Islington, plunges headlong into the controversy.

Goold’s Merchant transplants the story to modern-day Las Vegas (it could be renamed The Merchant of the Venetian). Shylock the moneylender is a local tycoon—and certainly not the first Vegas Jew to get perilously entangled in shady dealings. Portia, the heroine, is a southern belle with a reality-style gameshow to filter her suitors. Shylock’s servant, Launcelot, is an Elvis impersonator. As improbable and hopelessly high-concept as it all sounds, Goold’s ideas work. Beyond the pleasure inherent in watching classically-trained British thespians perform the Bard with American accents, the garish casino setting helps highlight the play’s more ridiculous moments: It is, after all, a comedy.

Clearly, though, this is not a comedy for everyone. Though David Aaronovitch, writing in the London Times, praised the production’s setting and acting, he also wrote that the play left him cold.

Even allowing for Shylock’s “prick us, do we not bleed?” speech inviting empathy of the Jews, nothing can disguise the fact that this was an anti-Jewish play for an anti-Jewish audience. The Jew cares as much for his money as he does for his daughter, and even more for the blood of a Christian than he does for his money. Thus he conforms to two of the great, historical anti-Jewish stereotypes. And in the end he is moneyless, daughterless, forcibly converted, and humiliated—all with the approval of the play’s heroes and heroines.

This was the first but also the last time. However good the acting and however valiant the director’s effort to mitigate or criticise the play’s intention, I am not going to applaud that again.

The role of Shylock is performed by the wonderful Ian McDiarmid, probably best known to Americans as the Emperor from Star Wars: Return of the Jedi (as well as the prequels). His Shylock is a far more nuanced villain—though he does veer quite thrillingly into evil territory, he is mostly pitiful. McDiarmid is adamant that Merchant is not anti-Semitic. “Well, of course it’s not anti-Semitic, we wouldn’t be doing it if it was,” he told the The Independent. “People who say the play is anti-Semitic, well they are wrong. They are absolutely wrong.”

This latest Merchant doesn’t answer those questions quite as neatly as McDiarmid might like: Whether or not the play is anti-Semitic and, if it is, whether it’s possible for a production of it to be subversive enough so as to render Shakespeare’s intentions meaningless. But it is still full of insight. Seen through the Vegas lens, the casual anti-Semitism displayed by pretty much every gentile character in the play hits close to home: they are portrayed, essentially, as white trash. And in McDiarmid’s performance, Shylock’s insistence on his pound of flesh is a direct, and deeply troubling, response to stereotype.

“When the opportunity arises to become ‘the vengeful Jew’, he seizes it,” McDiarmid said. “He puts all the trappings of society, all the tenets and complications of Judaism to one side, for a single notion: that he might achieve purification for his soul through a vengeful act. He ‘out Jews’ what that society thinks a Jew should be. He does a popular thing: he hijacks his religion for his own purpose. He becomes a jihadi for his race.”

Tal Kra-Oz is a writer based in Tel Aviv.

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