Shakespeare’s problematic comedy is here reclassified as, if not a tragedy, at least a melancholy examination of the human condition. It is a truism that, if you look closely, no one in The Merchant of Venice is very lovable, but directors can usually find comedy and romance as well as loss, greed and prejudice.
The tone is set by Antonio’s first line: “In sooth I know not why I am so sad.” Jamie Ballard, whose lovelorn merchant is at the heart of Polly Findlay’s modern-dress production, knows very well why. Alone on stage, he is a lost soul yearning for Bassanio who he later kisses with natural familiarity. The trial scene – Antonio screaming in terror, the stage awash with banknotes – is thrilling as Portia (an earnest Patsy Ferran) realises what her apparently romantic marriage really means. Afterwards, the ring business in Act V falls rather flat.
Israeli Makram J Khoury’s avuncular Shylock suffers disgusting anti-Semitism – there is copious spitting – and is tipped over the edge by Jessica’s elopement. She too feels alienated at Belmont, but all the new partnerships are showing cracks.
Marc Tritschler’s sublime choral music, based on 16th century pieces, expresses infinite sorrow. Johannes Schutz’s gleaming wall set suggests a gilded prison: no one in this play is free to choose how to live. Portia, bound by her father’s will, provides a rare moment of comedy by emphasising the rhymes with ‘lead’ in her song to tip Bassanio in the casket scene.
After Rupert Goold’s exuberant Las Vegas Merchant (albeit without a romantic ending) and Jonathan Munby’s bold handling of anti-Semitism at the Globe, this is an intelligent but downbeat reading.