William Shakespeare's controversial classic comes to bristling life in this riveting production from theater legend Trevor Nunn. Relocated to Europe between the two world wars, the story follows the misadventures of young ... more »heiress Portia, who must don the disguise of a male lawyer to save the life of her love, and the financially obsessed Shylock (Notting Hill's Henry Goodman), determined to literally collect a pound of flesh in court. Trevor Nunn directed the landmark revival of Rodgers & Hammerstein's Oklahoma! with Hugh Jackman as well as groundbreaking versions of Nicholas Nickleby, Othello, and Porgy & Bess. Originally presented to tremendous acclaim at the Royal National Theatre in June, 1999. Awards include: Olivier Awards - Best Actor (Henry Goodman) / Critics' Circle Theatre Awards - Best Actor (Henry Goodman)« less
"I can't decide if I love or hate this production. The acting is amazing, don't get me wrong. The sets are amazing. In reality, this play was done in a theatre resembling a stadium with the stage running down the middle of the auditorium, the wings on either side, and the audience on the left and right of the stage. That's why it looks so complex that you'd think, "how could they have done this onstage." The walls were built in later, I guess. But, here's where I can't decide whether I hate it or love it. This is one of Shakespeare's most controversial plays. It's probably his most controversial. Why? Because the Anti-Semitic content is more evident than it will ever be in Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ." And I mean no offense by this remark. I'm not saying that "The Passion of the Christ" isn't anti-semitic or that the Jews killed Jesus. I condemn anti-setism but I haven't seen that movie so therefore, I just don't get it entirely. I should know. I'm half-Jewish.
When I first read the play, I'm ashamed to say that this was my reaction. My first image of Shylock was a hunched-over, grumpy, little old man in [...]long robes and a long beard. His eyes were very leering (in my head) and he was much like those grumpy men you see in cartoons. I think he had a cane. In his last scene, I envisioned him shuffling off. I smiled. I thought he was a villain. So I was happy at the end when all was resolved. But then I did some more research on this play. I had only read it once before. They make him convert to Christianity!? That's an extremely anti-semitic act. Around the time that "The Passion of the Christ" was booming at the box office, I heard that a film adaptation of the play would be released the following year starring Al Pacino as Shylock, I thought, "God, hasn't the movie industry dealt with enough controversy." It didn't cause as big a stir as I anticipated.
Now, about this version. Trevor Nunn gives not an evil and plotting Shylock but a bitter and angry Shylock, a complex Shylock. Nunn is a master at shattering stereotypes. He presents with a Shylock who has dealt with years of anti-semititic behavior (for lack of a better word) directed towards him and his race. So we see his motivations. Also, we feel more for him when we see him in his yamurlke or setting up the lamp outside his house or conversing with his daughter, Jessica in Yiddish or singing with her in Hebrew (I can only wonder what that song meant but I like to think it's a song about happier times). Then, just as he is about to cut the pound of flesh from Antonio, his friend, Tubal, starts to leave the courtroom and gives Shylock a look that for me says, "This race has been through so much crap. Why do you want to make it worse for us, Shylock? Is it worth it?" It's moments like that that make this production so powerful and controversial for me. The sight of Shylock ripping off his traditional garments is chilling as is his exit of the courtroom. Everything's in silence. The ending also has its share of stereotypes. Basically, if you do the play and you do it so that Shylock looks like the villain, it's a happy ending for fans of anti-semitic entertainment because everyone's all happy, including Shylock's daughter. Instead, Nunn gives us an ending of uncertainty. Jessica backs away from the group. Portia notices that something is wrong and starts to converse about the coming of the day. For the first time in this production, it seems like a gloomy day is on the horizon. Meanwhile, Jessica breaks into that same Hebrew song. She is on the verge of tears. The film ends as thunder rumbles in the heavens as if to symbolize uncertainty.
I didn't get that ending at first. I thought Jessica was mourning for her father or asking forgiveness from her race. However, Nunn's interpretation is that by singing this song, she's saying, "You may have broken a Jewish man but his daughter's still around and she won't take the crap he had to take every day of his life." It's a haunting ending. The characters seem to be reminded of their sins.
All in all, as I write this review, I've decided that this production is powerful, not anti-Semitic. Nunn has given us a version of the play that should be considered the definitive production of the play. And now for the performances.
Henry Goodman deserved his Olivier for the part of Shylock. Had the production been brought to Broadway, he would have certainly won the Tony. He steals the show. Derbhle Crotty is a sassy and sexy Portia and looks just like she's been picked out of an old 30s [...]photo albumthis production being set in the 30s. Those were my two favorite performances. I particularly liked Nerissa's singing voice and I think she looks like Imelda Staunton a.k.a. the lady who played Vera Drake. Finally, while this production is powerful, it is funny, especially when the two princes are onstage. (Arragon does a flamenco dance. It's pointless but it helps define his character.)So, get this DVD and decide for yourself if you love it or hate it. And log on to the PBS website. They've got some stuff on this production 'cause it was on Masterpiece Theatre."
A Merchant to See
Spencer S. Christie | Boston, MA | 09/29/2005
(4 out of 5 stars)
"If you are a fan of The Merchant of Venice but were disappointed by Al Pacino's Shylock this DVD may be for you. Henry Goodman brings a grounded and passionate honesty to the role that Pacino sorely lacked. Although, I was not impressed by David Bamber as Antonio (boring) or Derbhle Crotty as Portia (lacking any real substance; Raymond Coulthard as the Prince of Arragon is historical and steals his scene. The show worked better on stage than it does as a filmed version but it is still well worth a viewing."
Riveting performances - Shakespeare at his best!
James Field | New Westminster, British Columbia Canada | 09/13/2004
(5 out of 5 stars)
"This Royal National Threatre production is an excellent presentation of one of Shakespeare's most controversial plays. I was riveted for the whole performance, which is what a good production of Shakespeare should do. Although it does not have the same production values as a Branagh production (it is more of a stage production on film), the acting and direction are suberb. Henry Goodman as Shylock delivers an especially strong performance and won an award for it. The setting in the pre-War period really works, unlike many other transpositions of Shakespeare I have seen, and the sets, with its use of contemporary art, though minimal, also work. I highly recommend this DVD."
Horribly Misunderstood Play
Billie Shears | Portland, OR | 11/12/2007
(5 out of 5 stars)
"As all of the other reviews seem to agree, I find this production to be magnificently performed, shot, and produced. In fact, the only problem the other reviews seem to state is the anti-Semitism present in the play.
In fact, many Shakespearean scholars disagree with this analysis, citing The Merchant of Venice as Shakespeare's tongue-in-cheek to contemporary Christopher Marlowe's anti-Semitic The Jew of Malta. Unlike Marlowe's play, Shakespeare paints all of the characters as very grey. There are no black and whites or absolutes here; Shylock has enough motive to be sympathized with (even if he takes things too far), and the other characters lack virtue enough that they cannot be seen as clear protagonists or heroes versus Shylock. In fact, Shakespeare through Shylock offers a case for equal treatment under the law, touching upon the cruelty exacted on the Jewish community by the Christian state of Vienna ("If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example? Why, revenge. The villainy you teach me I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction.")
The writing in this is fantastic, and the themes were revolutionary in Shakespeare's time. I feel that many others who have reviewed this have either misunderstood the play, or have failed to examine it carefully. It is certainly a masterpiece that more decries anti-Semitism than encourages it."
Merchant of Venice to Avoid
P. Owens | North Carolina | 04/16/2009
(1 out of 5 stars)
"I'm still searching for THE version to use in my classroom that will do the job. This was extremely boring and hard to follow. The Al Pacino version was much better as far as interesting to watch. This version does a much better job of following the original intent of the play and not getting caught up in political correctness. Safe to show in your classroom, but be prepared for your students to sleep through it."