The very story of The Merchant of Venice is controversial. Anyone touching the material would seem to tip-toe through a minefield of self-righteous outrage. The portrayal of Jews and Jewishness certainly appears anti-semitic, as do the attitudes to the black-skinned Prince of Morocco, or to the French, the Germans, or the Scots. The position of women is also provocatively displayed. Some have commented that perhaps this is the one Shakespeare play in which there are no likeable characters.
But to direct this, or any piece, you cannot pay heed to any of these perceptions. You have to deal, blow-by-blow, only with the text and action of the what lies in front of you. Considering the mores of the Elizabethan Age, where it was a capital offence even to be a jew, where a xenophobic attitude to everything foreign held sway, and it became a treasonable offence not to feel that Albion was an indeed sceptred Isle, (I think you don’t have to be a director to recognise some contemporary parallels here). So extreme, almost to a psychotic degree, are the endless racist jokes, stereotype slurs, confrontations of opposites, I have been forced to feel that Shakespeare, rather than being party to such ideas, was actually taking these on face to face and making prejudice the subject of his play.
As an opera director, the music in its myriad different guises must be as an important a factor in influencing the director as the text; the fact that in our operatic version of this tale André Tschaikovsky has created music of continuous beauty and compassion throughout also strongly influences how you explore what’s in the play. What your boundaries can be, what your aims must be.
In addition, he even adds to, or rather exhumes from Shakespeare, another object of man’s wanton prejudice: the treatment of homosexuality. So if the text and plot is in any way ambiguous, rather curiously the music is not. We feel the composer’s guidance to our moral approach at every turn. All the forms of prejudice are ugly or ridiculous and sound so, even if the human condition is always drawn with an empathy. We are, after all, now and then, whoever you are, wherever you abide, victims of prejudice: whether our own, or by the attack of others against us. We can only profit by being reminded of this.
My litmus test with the play, and now the opera, is this: if by the end of the evening you don’t feel deeply for and with Shylock like none of the other characters then I guess nothing in the poetry or the music, even less in the direction, is ever going to help you.
- Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff 16 Sep – 30 Sep
- The Bristol Hippodrome11 Oct
- Birmingham Hippodrome8 Nov
- Venue Cymru, Llandudno 22 Nov
- Mayflower Theatre, Southampton1 Nov
- Royal Opera House, London19 Jul – 20 Jul 2017
Review Merchant of Venice:
Review Macbeth, WNO: