Producer: Habima / Venue: Shakespeare’s Globe , 7:30 PM, Sunday 29th May 2012
One of the most interesting things about the Globe to Globe project, which has brought more than 30 foreign-language productions to London in the last month, is that it shows us not just how Shakespeare is performed around the world, but also how it is received. When Habima’s Merchant of Venice made its first break from the canonical text at the end of Act 1, Jacob Cohen’s Shylock turned to the audience and vocalised the subtext of Jewish complicity in deicide. “You are all,” he said, “witness to this bond”.
Habima’s production had several of these moments, where minor changes to a text, or a silent scene midrashically inserted, subverted expectations in one of the most familiar and problematic works in English literature. As with most modern versions, Cohen portrayed a sympathetic Shylock with depth and great physical nuance: assailed by a mob in the opening scene, distraught at the disappearance of his daughter (finding only a discarded dress after her disguised elopement). A tone or a gesture sketched out the rest of the cast in moments – Antonio a moody thug, Bassanio an insensitive boor, Portia a bigoted aristocrat, worrying if Morocco’s blackface would rub off on her.
The atmosphere at the Globe is always remarkable – close and intimate, especially for the standing “groundlings”, who for only £5 had the best view of proceedings. Despite, or perhaps because of, the sporadic interruptions of a few protestors, the audience were warm and full of goodwill, laughing at the lovers’ misadventures and Tomer Sharon’s excellent Lancelot Gobbo.
The laughter at Gobbo’s caricature of Shylock, complete with horns hidden under his kippah, was cathartic and self-reflexive – a celebration, as much as anything, by an Anglo-Jewish audience confidence & secure enough in society to enjoy a spectacle that in a newspaper cartoon would have been deeply offensive. Latent in the air was a deep existential satisfaction at an Israeli company moulding and shaping the devices of historic persecution for entertainment.
That’s not to say that this was an untroubling performance. Habima’s Christians were as vicious in triumph as any production I’ve seen – tearing off Shylock’s kippah, shoving a cross into his hand, bringing him to his kneed and forcing his acceptance of their terms. On a sparse set, the division between Jew and Gentile was subtly underlined throughout – by dress, by gait, even by the chairs they used. Portia’s coup at the trial was unusually played as a genuine epiphany, elegantly breaking up the narrative parallel between her treatment of Shylock, and of Antonio in the following Act. The only items shared between characters transformed during the trial scene to emphasise these reversals – Portia’s corset became Shylock’s bonds, the nullified contract a parody tallit, draped over him by a viciously exultant Bassanio.
The reassessment of her strategy in the trial freed up Hila Feldman’s Portia for the best set-piece of the play: a “Quality of Mercy” speech free from deliberate irony. Although the translation sometimes sagged with repurposed anglicisms and a dearth of Shakespearian rhetorical techniques, this was a definite highlight – filled with allusion, close attention to scansion, and delivered superbly.
In comparison, Cohen’s delivery of Shylock’s “if you prick us, do we not bleed” was subdued and undramatic. Perhaps this was due to external forces: on both nights this speech was heckled, protestors parodying a line or two – “Hath not a Palestinian eyes?”. On the second night the protestor cannily dropped his voice in time for Cohen, voice raised over the interruption, to declare “Shall we not revenge?”. This symbolic flourish was thoroughly undeserved by a group who thuggishly targeted Habima directly with their interruptions, rather than any of the policies they oppose.
And yet, in some way the protestor, in creating a studied silence that repurposed the words it disrupted, summed up the evening perfectly. Shakespeare took Marlowe’s Jew of Malta, and while retaining his villainy, humanised him and gave him one of the most powerful declarations of equality in literature. Four hundred years later in the same theatre, a troupe of Jews added a final scene of an exiled Shylock, crossing the stage with a suitcase, and received eight ovations from an audience including the Chief Rabbi and the Israeli ambassador. “The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose”, Antonio reminds Bassanio in Act 1, but leaving the Globe another quotation came to mind: “That’s plagiarism. You stole it from me. Thank you though”.
Benjamin Crowne was educated in London, Jerusalem and Cambridge. While Education Officer at Cambridge JSoc he developed “Commentator and Cake,” “Parsha Nuts” and other snack-based education programmes. He works as an auditor, is on the Associate Faculty at LSJS, and is currently researching the role of philosophy of science in Biblical interpretation.