by William Shakespeare
Directed by Daniel Sullivan
Starring Al Pacino
featuring Byron Jennings, Jesse L. Martin and Lily Rabe
A Production of the Joseph Papp/Public Theatre New York Shakespeare Festival
at the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park

Reviewed by David Spencer

I suppose artistic directors have to make claims that The Merchant of Venice is not an anti-Semitic play, in order to justify its performance; and if you read the Wikipedia entry all the way through (, there are a few interpretations of what Shakespeare might have meant that are thoughtful enough to give one pause; but watching the play, no matter how well done it may be, I never fail to cringe at its construction: by the simple principles of structure as Shakespeare held to them, the piece was intended as a “comedy” (which is to say: all balances out happily in the end). The gentile merchant Antonio (ironically, the identified merchant of the title, for his is the hero’s role) cannot bail out his profligate young friend Basanio without first going to Shylock, at whom (we are told) he has openly hurled public abuse, simply because Shylock is a Jew. Abuse that, Antonio admits, he might well heap upon Shylock again! Yet, in the end, Antonio not only escapes the “pound of flesh” bond he owes Shylock, but regains everything he has financially risked and lost, plus more, at Shylock’s expense. What’s more, no matter how you play the moment—and these days, the moment can only unsettle—a simple reading of the text also seems to suggest that when the final condition upon Shylock’s life being spared is levied—that he must become a Christian—it is meant as a boon for which Shylock might well be pleased. And perhaps is, because it enforces the assimilation into mainstream society that has resisted him in his clinging to a Jewish identity.

                  So I always find the play tough to take. And not just because I’m Jewish. Never mind that Shakespeare (so they say) knew no Jews and that anti-Semitism had quite a different cultural weight in the England of the Bard’s time than it does today. One has to renew the pact one makes with great art and great artists. If a Jewish renaissance man like Stephen Fry can, with full appreciation of the dark ironies, so embrace the music of the even more distastefully anti-Semitic 19th century composer Richard Wagner as to be the force behind a recent BBC network special in appreciation—check it out, you downloaders and proxy borrowers, Stephen Fry on Wagner—I guess as a mere New York theatre critic, I can likewise acknowledge that there are passages of poetry and brilliance in Merchant that have the power to take your breath away.

                  And it’s an easier concession given that Daniel Sullivan’s production at the Delacorte in Central Park—one of the Public Theatre’s free Summer theatre entries, in repertory with The Winter’s Tale—is as good a Merchant as ever I’ve seen. True, it retains the fundamental imbalance of having to bow toward a more humanist, more comprehensive view of ethnic prejudice—without which imbalance the play would lose much more in audience tolerance than it would gain in structural coherence—but if you wrench yourself away from that, you bear witness to a fine ensemble delivering a clean, brisk, nuanced interpretation. Sullivan doesn’t do anything terribly fancy: as is the wont of many directors these days, he has eschewed period sets and costumes for a kind of “never never land” update that allows a more contemporary look—in this case, say, mid-to-late 19th century—to suggest an alternate historical reality, rather than pointed anachronism. In lesser hands, this can have mixed results, but Sullivan allows it to release his actors’ classical grandeur in contemporary cadences.

                  Of course, one needs actors of sufficient skill to pull this off, and those he has in memorable abundance, most particularly Byron Jennings, who attaches an unsettling nobility to Antonio’s bigotry (most unsettling of course because he plays it straight ahead and as written); Lily Rabe as a wryly alluring Portia, whose comic timing is as impeccable as her legal logic is merciless; and of course Al Pacino as Shylock, revisiting the role he played in director Michael Radford’s 2004 film. It’s an intense Shylock, and unapologetically rich in Hebraic cadences that wouldn’t be out of place in the diamond district. And ironically even more sympathetic for being uncompromising. Other notables include (but are not limited to) Hamish Linklater, Nyambi Nyambi, Max Wright, Jesse L. Martin and Francois Battiste.

                  So all in all, I suppose one can take the pound of flesh with a grain of salt…

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