Among the many special relationships talked about in England, perhaps it’s time to acknowledge the unique theatrical symbiosis between Shakespeare and Trevor Nunn. The Bard seems to breathe more easily when directed by Nunn, as evidenced over the better part of two decades at the Royal Shakespeare Co. and now at the National Theater. Also, as his present staging of “The Merchant of Venice” definably proves, Nunn has the effect on Shakespeare of wiping a time-honored canvas clean, revealing colors whose clarity is sometimes shocking: After all, when was the last time that “Merchant” — for all its abundant mournfulness — was packed so full of high spirits?
The larkiness of the gentile community is one of the unsettling masterstrokes of a production that has followed Olympia Dukakis in Martin Sherman’s “Rose” as the second show in the Cottesloe studio to receive an ovation at the performance caught. True, there are moments when the casting doesn’t deliver the textual insight felt throughout, and one wishes particularly for a stronger Jessica than Gabrielle Jourdan to deliver an effective closing punch here accompanied by some clever tinkering with the text. (As her suitor, Daniel Evans’fey Lorenzo is comparably out of his league.)
Mostly, however, Nunn works not by altering what post-Holocaust remains a problematic source but via absolute fidelity to the shifting moods of a play whose moments of good cheer, as everyone knows, exact an awful price.
Gratiano (Richard Henders), for instance, may possess a “skipping spirit,” but that’s only as long as he’s hanging out with his mates Bassanio (Alexander Hanson), Salerio (Peter de Jersey) and Solanio (Mark Umbers), whose own approach to money is to drink their coffees and run before anyone notices they haven’t paid the bill. Present these suited anti-Semites with the Jew Shylock (Henry Goodman), however, and they can’t go in for the kill enough amid a community that finds even Shylock’s servant, Launcelot Gobbo (Andrew French), ready to crack a joke at his master’s expense.
As played by Henders, this Gratiano is a sartorially well turned-out thug who thinks with his fists: Significantly, he throws a playful punch to Alex Kelly’s Nerissa, newly got up in legal garb as male clerk to Portia (Derbhle Crotty) in her own masculine disguise. Portia, by contrast, begins as a slinky siren dressed by designer Hildegard Bechtler in body-hugging black. (Bechtler is responsible, too, for the sparely appointed traverse set.)
But there’s something scary about the zealous embrace of “the law” of this onetime minx during a trial scene that debases everyone involved, and one only wishes Crotty communicated radiance as easily as she does a strict reading of the law that cannot but be — to co-opt her own word — “strained.”
The style and sound of the show evoke a jazz-flecked 1920s that incorporates a Klimt canvas for the casket scenes and a drunken, louche ambiance by way of “Cabaret.”
Against the period specifics, there’s a properly timeless feel to Goodman’s fierce and hunted yarmulke-wearing Shylock, which errs only in a tendency to build from whisper to roar that begins to resemble a vocal trick. Sharing a Yiddish exchange with Jessica, Shylock is later subjected to nothing less than emotional rape: the money-lender stripped of everything that matters, starting with family and faith. Goodman doesn’t shy away from the hardening of a man who ends up surrendering much more than a pound of flesh in the painful closing-off of his heart.The silencing of Shylock — preceded by his ally Tubal (John Nolan) walking out on him in disgust — casts its inevitable chill over the final scene, which doesn’t need a roll of thunder to remind us that the lovers’ putative cuckoldry pales next to the “Christianity” imposed upon Shylock.
It’s Nunn’s strength to sustain interest to the finish, and he is helped no end by Hanson, who cuts easily the most complicated Bassanio I have seen — his decency adrift in a Venice of thwarted loyalties and misplaced loves as embodied by Antonio (David Bamber), the lovesick “merchant” of the title whose apparently milquetoast demeanor is capable of real rage.
Indeed, though the Jew-baiting in “Merchant” is what resounds through the centuries, it’s possible to read the play in its entirety as a so-called “comedy” of reconciliation that leaves at least some of its inhabitants a wreck. Shylock is exiled from the amorous milieu with which “The Merchant of Venice” concludes. But his presence lives on in those unexpected final notes floated by a daughter lost to him in a play that on this occasion sings no less troublingly to us today.