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The Merchant Of Venice

13 Sep

The Merchant Of Venice — directed by Cedric Messina. Melodrama. BBC TV Play Of The Week
★★★★
The Story: An heiress disguises herself as a young lawyer to evade the death sentence of her fiancé’s friend — by a vengeful moneylender.
~
Charles Gray, with his voice like the curtains of a great opera house, plays the title character of The Merchant Of Venice, and quite right too, since the play is all about riches.

Or is it?

Launcelot Gobbo, well played by Bunny May, seeks to convince his blind old father that he is his very own son — but fails. As likewise blind Justice and blind Cupid also fail. Or are perhaps never put to proper trial.

For this production makes of the Venetians what they truly are — figurines of Venetian glass. And they are costumed as such to perfection — save that codpieces obviously don’t do well as penial prows on glass.

The play is Shakespeare’s usual admixture of modes, for the writing of the money-lender Shylock is garbed not in glass but gabardine. And so the jarring conflict of literary styles creates its own conflict amidst the conflict of the characters. The playwright refuses to allow you to know what to expect.

The greatest Shylock I ever saw was George C. Scott’s in Central Park. He played it as a Lower East Side kike in full oi-vey Hebe accent — which he allowed himself or obliged himself to do because he himself was Jewish. Frank Finlay plays in a lower key, nothing Jewish about him except what he says of himself.

This works well enough — the part is foolproof since its style is always earthy and no one else’s is. So his defeat by glass figurines has its irony in the spectacle of stone shattered by glass. It cannot fail.

The boys of Venice are fraternity boys. Their courtships are swift and lacey. They are based on nothing firmer than rash impulse, their loyalties to one another always a mite stronger to their mates than to their mates.

There’s a truth to engagements in such frivolity of choice. It’s a fairy tale and fairy tales are true.

Maggie Smith presents Portia as an adherent to ancestral law as, rueful of her duty but loyal to it, she honorably outwaits the fairy-tale plot of the courtship of the three caskets. She plays the great courtroom scene simply and directly. As the millionaire heiress she is made up like a porcelain figurine — which is right for the role — and as the young lawyer in court appears to wear no make-up at all. It’s all done with wigs. It’s a good performance, and she is well-cast for it.

The great duets — the ring duet is rushed — and the “on such a night as this” duet is unclear. Which is too bad, for we want to hear how glass sounds when singing.

But we don’t go to Shakespeare — the most heterogeneous of writers — for perfection. We are in it to endure the mélange of ourselves. So we’d best put up with what we find.

 
 
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