Not all of Shakespeare’s works remain popular, but The Merchant of Venice is well-known and often performed today despite the cloud of controversy surrounding it. Perhaps the reason for this longevity is its capacity to keep audiences guessing. Is it a racist play, or a play about racism? Is the character of Shylock villainous or sympathetic? How did Shakespeare view him, and did he ever even meet any Jews?
The Trial of the Jew Shylock is a new adaption by theatre company Poetic Justice, now showing at the Rosemary Branch. But if the title and promotional blurb has led you to believe this is something fresh and different, you might be disappointed – this is Shakespeare dressed in contemporary clothes, and you’ve seen that before. But that’s not to say this version of the play has nothing interesting to offer.
As the title indicates, the play centres on the character of Shylock. But while it is hard to escape the conclusion that Shylock, with his merciless insistence on claiming his pound of flesh, is a bit of a baddie, this adaptation goes some way to suggest reasons for his behaviour. We see a man continually abused by his Christian neighbours, whose chief complaints against him seem to be his Jewishness and his perceived love of money. Their open anti-Semitism is jarring to a contemporary audience, as is the accusation of greed, since money, as this production is at pains to point out, is all anyone around here wants. His abusers despise him for being a money lender while availing themselves of his services, and his beloved daughter has abandoned him for a Christian man who loves her for her money as much as herself.
This Shylock spends most of his time on the defensive, bitterly conscious of the injustice of his situation, and his choosing to reject the offer of big money in favour of an essentially valueless piece of flesh suggests not greed, but rage.
Ashley Gunstock does a remarkable job of showing the humanity and complexity of a man consistently objectified by everyone around him. His delivery of the ‘Hath not a Jew eyes’ speech and the final forced conversion scene are particularly stunning, confronting the audience with questions about who is showing inhumanity towards whom. Perhaps the victim or villain? debate applies to more than one character in this play.
The Trial of the Jew Shylock is the Rosemary Branch theatre, 2A Shepperton Road, N1 3DT until 1 June.