Tuesday, 8 April 2014

The Merchant of Venice

What: Playing Shakespeare: The Merchant of Venice, dir. Bill Buckhurst (Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, London; 6 - 29th March 2014)

When: Saturday 29th March 2014

Where: Shakespeare's Globe Theatre, Bankside

Why: Free tickets and lovely weather for March

How: Full of brunch; wearing a Venetian carnival mask



Jew Jew Jew Jew Jew.

One syllable, uttered fifty-five times in The Merchant of Venice.[1] It is a word that has never ceased to make me uncomfortable. As with every time I sing ‘Niggaz in Paris’ (frequently; normally when driving round town in the Fiesta) or ‘Brown Sugar’ (less so; normally when baking), I feel I’m appropriating a taxonomy that is not mine to appropriate. I have struggled in recent years with my heightened sensitivity to language, with my instantaneous and unrelenting reactions to words or phrases at which in the past I would not have stopped to stand and stare. I am used to a home life where my patience is often willfully tested; the provocateurs of which are used to being subjected to my leftist feminist ire. Whilst this visceral reactivity troubled me as I entered my twenties (‘Am I less fun? Have I lost my ability to take a joke?’), of late I have found solace in sticking to my guns. I am becoming the person I want to be, a person whose opinions I agree with, who I wouldn’t mind being sat next to at a dinner party (though I would hog the gravy and get all pas/ag mad at myself).

My reaction to ‘Jew’ is, however, one of those things I continue to trouble over. Why should I cringe at the word ‘Jew’? Why do I always say ‘Jew...ish person’ in conversation? If I’m not a Jew, can I say the word ‘Jew’? A Jew would say ‘Jew’. Here, however is the flipside: an anti-Semite would say ‘Jew’ too.

This, I think, is the crux of the matter for me. I went to a secondary school unsure of its own Catholicity, where there were very few Jews filling our pews. My contact with ‘Jew’ growing up was a mixture of RS lessons, Jesus Christ Superstar, and a History A Level which focussed heavily on Weimar and Nazi Germany. There are only so many anti-Semitic polemical pamphlets, newspapers, books, films, speeches and posters you can read about before you become pretty sensitive about the word ‘Jew’.

as told by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's
 Jesus Christ Superstar (1973)
This is highly unfair on your everyday Jew. It’s not as if every contact I have with a black person leaves me fist-in-mouth suppressing an apology for slavery, or every time I go for a Chinese I have to stop myself from screaming GET YOUR DIRTY OPIUM OUT OF MY FOO-YUNG. But perhaps it is the lack of personal contact I seem to have had with the Jewish community, alongside a biased education system, that has left me socially awkward about the term ‘Jew’.

Bill Buckhurst’s production did not, however, shy away from ‘Jew’. Playing Shakespeare is an initiative of Globe Education and Deutsche Bank’s Born to Be programme and that has been running since 2005.[2] It offers all state schoolchildren within a London borough a free ticket to a performance, along with the opportunity to attend workshops and access online resources specially produced to aid pupils and teachers alike develop their understanding of their play. Having covered Macbeth, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Romeo and Juliet in recent years, Merchant seems like an odd choice to present to thirteen-year-olds. Last year’s Romeo and Juliet was teenage romance made street: it had bus stops and burnt-out cars and underage sex (everything your average KS3 English student of the 2010s aspires to, in the eyes of Deutsche Bank?). Merchant poses some challenging logical, emotional and moral questions to the most ardent of Shakespeareans, let alone to kids encountering the Bard for the first time. Maybe that’s precisely why it makes a good choice – let them know early on that whatever you feel about Shakespeare in one play, is likely to be completely overturned by the next. With none of the gore of the Scottish play, the asinine humour of the Forest outside Athens, or the aforementioned horn wot lies in fair Verona, Merchant instead presents us with business deals, everyday racism and no real climax. It is a play I somehow managed to avoid all throughout my education, eventually reading it only as I was compiling copy for the ‘Characters’ section of the production’s microsite, during my research internship at the Globe last summer. As a fan of neat categorisation, I think I’d avoided it as a ‘problem play’. Girl got enough problems without problem plays!

Although the performance I attended was one laid on for the general public (relatively under-attended, it seemed, despite the fact that free tickets, yes, FREE TICKETS, were circulated; one of my many student hangovers is that I can’t turn down a free anything[3]), it was refreshing to be seeing it as a-new as the school pupils who had filled the playhouse in the preceding weeks.

Which is one of the reasons ‘Jew’ kept coming as a shock. Anti-Semitism is a real and current issue. Having recently read a whole load of (some might say, too many) Steven Berkoff one-act plays at work, several of which are dialogues between Jews approaching death at a concentration camp, it’s fair to say my school-initiated Jewish-sensitivity has been given a boost. What is at the root of the play’s unrelenting nastiness? A deeply ingrained cultural anti-Semitism from a kingdom that had expelled the Jews in 1290 and not let them slowly, quietly creep back in until the 1650s? Do we just have to accept that that was ‘just how it was’ back then? That one of our national icons was a big fat racist cunt with a sharp tongue and an even sharper pen, but that that was OK ‘cos ‘everyone was doing it’? Will my loveblind Bardophilia allow me to feel this, really, as a truth? Or is it that the nastiness is so hyperbolic that it becomes laughable, ironic even? And does that excuse it? In the position that we are in now, post-Holocaust, post-Israel, will we ever (should we ever?) be able to read or see this play without baulking inside?

Completely unbiased medieval portraiture

The Merchant cast did not seek to answer these questions, but neither did they seek to recoil from the play’s viciousness. Ognen Drangovski’s Shylock’s vindictive rage never allowed us to pity him for too long, although my heart was in my mouth during the famous ‘Hath not a Jew eyes?’ speech.[4] Thomas Coombe’s Gratiano embodied, in particular, the blind hatred of the ‘Native’ for the Other: spitting on Shylock’s forcefully discarded shawl at the end of the trial, Coombes presented Gratiano as a hanger-on of a lad, suggesting how it is that type of wordless hanger-on who can inflict the most disrespectful, most sinister of insults. The play ended powerfully, as Bethan Cullinane’s Jessica, Shylock’s prodigal daughter who runs off with her hot Christian boyf and her daddy’s money, was left alone onstage after the Venetians had danced off stage, whooping and cheering over their defeat and coerced conversion of the Jew. As she looked down at her father’s tallit, abandoned on the temporary thrust stage, the others reappeared, approaching her en masse with a reprise of Pharrell Williams’ ‘Happy’, which had opened the play, now stripped of its positivity, clawingly cold when sung with dead eyes. Shylock came through the yard to rejoin his daughter, holding her gaze without judgement as he faced her onstage, before finally and unexpectedly striking up a triumphant Jewish dance with the rest of the cast. As so often, so fascinatingly, happens at the end of Globe performance, a line is drawn under the horror that has come before.

There were other topics I had planned to touch on in this post,[5] but I have lost all appetite for them. It is a play that, for all its subplotting and comedic moments, will perpetually be of interest predominantly for its Jewish question; I make no apologies for trying and failing to work that one out for myself.

I do apologise, however, that this has been less theatre review, more circular soul-searching. Perhaps I should consider changing this blog’s title from “What Sophie Saw” to “The Morally-Troubled Ramblings of a Twenty-First Century WASP”.

[1] Statistic courtesy of www.opensourceshakespeare.org – an invaluable resource for the lazy Shakespearean. (NB/ Open Source Shakespeare do not state which ‘version’ of Merchant they have used for this concordance, so it may be that the 1600 Quarto and 1623 Folio differ in this number, but it seems a trifle pedantic to go through each and count up the Jews.)

[3] At this point, I was going to upload a link to the Family Guy clip where Peter tries to sell Tibet to China, but, tellingly, it only has two Youtube appearances, one without sound and one rather muffled.

[4] Worth quoting at length, for its sheer potency:
I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed?  if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that. If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example? Why, revenge. The villany you teach me, I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction.

[5] Namely: how do I feel about the marriage of arts organisations, education and the open wallet of capitalism; the peculiar inclusion of a hot tub used briefly in two scenes; Antonio’s Wolf of Wall Street-esque suit; the unrelenting regional accents and euphemistic thrusts that get on my wick in every Globe production, to the point that my scribbled note on this on the train home was ‘Globe STOP IT’; the implications of Portia’s objectified future being locked in a ‘chest’, handed over in a ‘ring’; the absurdness but ultimately hilarity of the Prince of Aragon’s portrayal as a Flamenco dancer.