Theatre That Changed My Life, Week 1: Nunn’s Merchant of Venice (1999)

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“If we do meet again, why, we shall smile”. So says Shakespeare’s Brutus to Cassius, in Julius Caesar. The Globe has repurposed this quotation as a defiant strapline for its online response to the Coronavirus crisis: its website and social media images now declare “if when we meet again, why, we shall smile.

But anyone who knows their Julius Caesar will know that after this line is uttered, Cassius and Brutus never do meet again. Cassius commits suicide-by-coerced-slave on perceiving that the battle of Phillippi is going badly; Brutus finds his body, then himself dies by suicide a few hours later. I’m a fan of the Globe, and you could do a lot worse during lockdown than watch Michelle Terry’s turn in Hamlet, which I reviewed for Front Row here. But for those of us despondent about the current closure of the UK’s theatres, it’s hard not to carry with us, as we absorb the Globe’s digital response, the dark irony of this line’s original context.

I miss theatre like I miss my family. That will be a familiar sentiment for people whose life is intimately tied to this industry – we’re all familiar with the (sometimes facetious) adage that the theatre industry is one big family.

If it’s a family, critics and theatre-interested writers aren’t always nestled at its heart: at times like this we might seem more akin to that grouchy great-aunt who shows up once a year for Christmas, viciously criticises everyone’s hair and politics, then gets misted-eyed about how wonderful it is that ‘Christmas is a time to be with people you love’, while the people she’s just attacked look on in bewilderment. (As with critics, so with festive great-aunts: it’s often the gin talking.) But most critics I know choose to be critics (or at least try – who has a job nowadays?) because as with a teenage crush, we just love theatre and we’ll seek out any excuse to talk and talk and keep talking about the object of our love.

In a recent piece for the Sunday Times, David Jays writes of a life spent “hanging out with strangers in the dark”. It’s a phrase that speaks to me of how I’ve lived my life; a phrase that captures a sharp balance of intimacy and anonymity. (If I’m ever squeamish about participatory theatre, it’s on those nights when I’ve gone to a theatre in order to hide myself away.) Most of us fell in love with theatre as teenagers, especially if we had the privilege of living in a major city: a fair few of my weekends in the early 2000s would consist of queuing for returns for a Friday night performance, then getting up before light the following Saturday morning to queue for another production’s day seats. I might have had difficulty with friendships at school (what fifteen-year-old girl doesn’t?) but at dawn on the Earlham Street pavement, outside the Donmar Warehouse, I could rely on finding a queue of people drawn by a shared obsession. One of my proudest moments in theatre is simply that I managed to get hold of a ticket for Peter Brooks’ Hamlet at the Young Vic in 2001, with Adrian Lester, with a performance payoff of front-row beanbag seats on the stage with all my new-found friends-from-the-5am-queue. I suspect many theatre lovers treasure a teenage memory like this one.

Without theatre, I don’t quite know what to do with myself. So each week from now until the UK’s theatres reopen, I’ll post a short piece of writing here about a piece of theatre that changed my life. It’s my own small way of paying tribute to our closed performance spaces and, I hope, reminding people why it will matters so much to raise funds and rebuild this shuttered industry. I don’t have much free time at the moment – so these are all rough sketches without an edit. But I hope someone, somewhere gets something out of them.

First up is a well-chronicled, mainstream National-Theatre-does-Shakespeare production: Trevor Nunn’s Merchant of Venice with Henry Goodman. Next week, something a little more obscure: Joanna Laurens’ brilliant debut play at the Gate Theatre, The Three Birds.


Henry Goodman and Gabrielle Jourdan as Shylock and Jessica (credit Geraint Lewis)

Henry Goodman and Gabrielle Jourdan as Shylock and Jessica (credit Geraint Lewis)

We all start with Shakespeare. By 1999, when I was 13, I’d seen my share of child-friendly Midsummer Night’s Dreams and a few darker comedies. I’d even seen Philip Voss as my first Shylock in Greg Doran’s The Merchant of Venice, set in the modern city. (Two years after the Barings collapse, the financial regulators’ insistence on honouring even the most disastrous of debts suddenly made sense to my childish brain when I watched the trial scene: ‘’twill be recorded as a precedent; And many an error by the same example / Will rush into the state.”) But it was Trevor Nunn’s production of The Merchant of Venice at the National Theatre – first small scale in the Cottesloe [now Dorfman], then magnified for the Olivier, which changed my life.

Choosing to write about this play as my first post is a bit of a cheat: I’ve written about it already here for The Stage, when Jonathan Miller died. Miller’s 1970 production of The Merchant is the pivot on which turns the post-war performance history of The Merchant of Venice: Nunn’s version, set in the inter-war years, owed much to it. As Ronald Pickup puts it, Miller’s production “knocked for six” the “popular, sentimental light” in which The Merchant and its gentile heroes had been seen. (“Foul people, the nastiest bunch in Shakespeare.”)  Nunn’s version also followed Miller in portraying Henry Goodman’s Shylock as an initially assimilated member of gentile society, gradually embracing his Jewish culture as a point of difference in response to the anti-semitism with which he is treated. Here’s what I wrote when Miller died in 2019:

But what really changed me was the humane and profoundly sympathetic portrait of Shylock, the progressively more alienated and embittered Jewish merchant. For Shakespeare’s audiences, Shylock had been a comic villain. Like the Devil of the medieval mystery plays, or Marlowe’s Barabas, he was to be feared but ultimately mocked. Yet here, given life by the superlative Jewish actor Henry Goodman, he was the most textured, dignified character on stage.

The more racism he experienced, the more he rejected Christian society. It made me understand for perhaps the first time the decisions my own family had made in response to their experience of anti-Jewish persecution. In the closing moments of the play, Shylock’s estranged daughter Jessica began to sing the Kaddish, the traditional Jewish prayer for the dead. And I cried. Powerful theatre teaches us to understand our own stories.

Many Shakespearians of Jewish heritage are drawn to the Merchant of Venice. This Merchant and came at a key moment in my life: I had recently learned on my grandmother’s death that my Hungarian grandparents had both been born and raised in Jewish families; that as Holocaust survivors arriving in Britain, in an act of trauma, they had chosen to suppress their Jewish roots completely. Becoming more English than the English (think Goodness Gracious Me, but with Hungarian Jews), they had chosen to raise their children as Anglicans and teach them nothing about the past. This was what they feared would still prove a necessary survival strategy. Culturally, my grandparents had gone into hiding in the Holocaust, and never come out. (I’ve written about this story, in part, for the Financial Times here and about Tom Stoppard’s similar experience of ‘Anglowashing’ in this NYRB review of Leopoldstadt.)

 So by 1999, a Jewish heritage had suddenly become for me a source of confusion and fear. Yet for all the Shakespeare’s anti-semitic baggage, here was the country’s biggest theatre offering up its biggest space for a dissection of the psychic harm caused by anti-semitism and for a public reckoning with Europe’s anti-semitic past. If Henry Goodman could play a sympathetic Shylock on the country’s most prominent stage, surely being Jewish wasn’t anything for me to fear in modern Britain? And if William Shakespeare could handle issues of conversion and assimilation with such grace, 400 years before I found myself grappling with the very same questions, surely he was a writer worth getting to know better?

It is hardly unusual, of course, to find sympathetic Shylocks. Since 1945, it has been impossible to respond to The Merchant of Venice without placing the play in a historical trajectory that finds its end in the Holocaust. That means fraught conversations about who gets to speak about this text, who gets to play it and its villains really are. Arnold Wesker argued that The Merchant of Venice should only be performed alongside a response from a Jewish writer (naturally, he pushed his own play: The Merchant or Shylock, which he had penned after seeing Laurence Olivier in Jonathan Miller’s 1970 production.) In 1955, with memories of the Holocaust still recent, the British director Tyrone Guthrie only managed to persuade the Stratford Festival of Canada to host his touring production of The Merchant of Venice when he promised to engage Frederick Valk, a Jewish refugee, in the role of Shylock.

So by 1999 it was by no means radical that Goodman’s Shylock was sympathetic. Nor was he fully so: Goodman played him as a man with brimming with rage, his capacity for anger and violence so extreme that it pushed away both of the play’s other Jewish characters. As Robert Butler noted his Independent review, Nunn created a silent moment halfway through the play’s trial scene, in which Shylock’s friend Tubal stood up in court, looked at the vengeful Shylock in sorrow, and left the room, effectively washing his hands of his colleague. Vengence, we are reminded in that moment, has not been the only Jewish response to anti-semitism. Similarly, Gabrielle Jourdan’s Jessica was pushed away not out of longing for Lorenzo, but out of fear of her father’s physical rages. Ordering her to shut the windows of their house and ‘stop my house’s ears’ against the Christian carnival outside, Goodman’s Shylock struck her. And in Nunn’s notes, preserved in the National Theatre Archive at RNT/SM/1/443, we find an instruction that “at that moment he lost her forever.” She eloped shortly after and struck a miserable figure at Belmont. In the play’s last scene, the viciously anti-semitic Antonio (David Bamber) physically blocked Jessica from entering the group celebrations of Portia’s return.

For Nunn, Jessica was perhaps the most interesting figure in the play – which given my interest in conversion is doubtless why his production left an impression on me. Her role was expanded as far as possible, with an added domestic scene in which Shylock and Jessica spoke Hebrew to each other at home. (He reduced her to tears by comparing her housekeeping with that of her late mother.) That Jessica and Shylock were Jewish in the way that my grandparents were Jewish was clear throughout – not just from this scene, but in the moment at play’s close when Jessica sung the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead. (Does she assume, rightly or wrongly, that Shylock is now dead? Or is she, in these interwar years, singing a Kaddish for all the Jews who are soon to die?)  It was the same prayer which, after much wrangling about propriety, had recently been read at my grandfather’s funeral. It was the same prayer, too, which we heard over the closing moments of Miller’s 1970 version. But in Miller’s version, the music was sung by a male voice off stage. Nunn took that moment of performance history and paid homage to it by placing the song in Jessica’s throat. It’s the moment at which Gabrielle Jourdan’s re-embraced her Jewishness, a final, colossal two fingers up to her gentile companions. It was a reminder that people have taken pride in being Jewish even at the worst of times, and that conversion can be a source of regret. And at that moment, it was exactly what I needed to hear.

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