Review: The Merchant of Venice, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse ★★★☆☆

Abigail Graham’s production of The Merchant of Venice attempts to ‘reclaim’ Shakespeare’s problematic play through a reworking that reestablishes the play’s core message – one that is inherently antisemitic.

The premise remains the same; Bassanio (Michael Marcus) requires money to woo Portia (Sophie Melville) and approaches Antonio (Michael Gould) for a loan. Antonio, being cash poor until his ships return to port, agrees to become guarantor for a loan from the Jewish moneylender Shylock (Adrian Schiller). Shylock, wary of Antonio’s open antisemitism, agrees to the loan on the condition that should the balance not be repaid on time he would be entitled to take a pound of Antonio’s flesh.

Adrian Schiller. Photo: Tristram Kenton

So far, so usual. However, Graham’s reworking takes a scalpel to the the text; trimming it to 2 hours, moving some scenes, eschewing stereotypes and tropes, switching the sympathetic focus onto Shylock, and delivering an earlier conclusion.

In many ways it works; we feel immediately on Shylock’s side, in part due to a fantastic, understated performance by Schiller, with a pay off coming in a ‘new’ devastating conclusion that is truly heart-wrenching. The reduced running time makes for a more focused production under Graham’s direction and the suggestion of a relationship between Antonio and Bassanio adds an additional subtle layer to the loan transaction.

But the scales fall the other way too. The reimagining of Portia’s wooing as a game show with the heiress as the price is well played by Melville, who is both alluring and frightening, and Tripti Tripuraneni, as the gameshow host-styled Nerissa – but is this an satirical examination of the role of women as objects in the society in which Shakespeare lived or is it a flashy gimmick played for laughs that only increases the objectification of Portia, placed on a podium in a short dress and heels for suitors to leer at? It feels more like the latter.

Michael Marcus and Sophie Melville. Photo: Tristram Kenton

The real question to weigh up is whether the reworking resolves the problem of the play’s antisemitism. Certainly, with the stereotypes gone and the ‘happy ending’ disposed of there’s an argument that it does. But the frequent antisemitism of the characters is uncomfortable and, without any glint of salvation for them, it wears.

So then; does Graham’s production shift the scales towards Shakespeare’s play being an examination of antisemitism rather than just being antisemitic? It’s a question I don’t have the answer to. The debate around this problem play goes on.

The Merchant of Venice is at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse until 9 April 2022