Review: Habima's bravura Merchant of Venice

By John Nathan, May 31, 2012
Habima's Merchant of Venice at the Globe

Habima's Merchant of Venice at the Globe

It was an extraordinary evening. A production by Israel’s Habima Theatre company of The Merchant of Venice, staged at Shakespeare’s Globe, performed in Hebrew, charged with pro-Palestinian protest and electrified by a very fine production.

And as the Globe’s artistic director Dominic Dromgoole said in a dignified pre-show speech to the audience of punters, and protesters disguised as punters (by my count about ten of them, each gently ejected by oak-sized security staff whenever they raised a victory sign or shouted slogans) this Globe-to-Globe season is not so much a series of plays performed by nation states but as a festival of languages, 37 of them, one for each of Shakespeare’s plays.

This, then, was the Hebrew show.

However, I doubt whether most of those present, whether there to support or sabotage, entirely accepted Dromgoole’s well-intended invitation to view the evening only as an exercise in language. Yes, this was a show in Hebrew, but it was to be performed by Israel’s national theatre and therefore on at least some level, represented Israel. And perhaps just as pertinently, it was also to be performed by Jews who were taking on a work that many consider to be antisemitic. It’s hard to think of a theatre event more loaded with symbolism.

For me, the barrier I couldn’t quite imagine Habima getting over had nothing to do with antisemitism, but the problem of predictability — of marrying a Jewish production to Shakespeare’s famous Jewish play, almost as if there was an assumption that other plays in the canon were for other people. It was a choice — made jointly by Habima’s artistic director Ilan Ronen and Dromgoole — that felt both obvious and oddly ghettoising. But I was wrong. The result, in fact, was unexpectedly liberating.

The show kicks off with a kicking. It’s carnival time and even before a word has been spoken, the masked citizens of Venice surround Jacob Cohen’s diminutive Shylock, snatch his tefillin, rip off his tzitzit and lay into him with fists and feet, leaving the Jew whimpering in pain and humiliation. Only then does Alon Ophir’s vampiric Antonio remove his mask, revealing that he was one of Shylock’s more ardent assailants and, glowing from his efforts, wistfully declare the play’s first line: “In sooth I know not why I am so sad” — in Hebrew.

The language is no barrier to non-Hebrew speakers such as me. There is a crystal clarity to Ronen’s production, and not just because Venice’s Jews dress in reddish ochre and the Christians in pure white, but because the quality of Habima’s performances is so high and the show’s central motif — ropes that bind Antonio and Shylock to the centre of both the play and the Globe’s stage — so inventive. In Belmont they are used by Hila Feldman’s mesmerising Portia to ensnare Bassanio. But the bravura moment comes in the court scene where Antonio is bound spider-like to the centre of a cat’s cradle, until the roles are reversed and Shylock himself becomes ensnared.

As for Cohen — a fine actor best known in Israel as a stand-up comedian — there is no spite detectable in this short, bearded and bullied Jew; little sense of Jewish ritual as he sharpens the knife to take a pound of Antonio’s flesh (I’ve seen British productions that practically turn the scene into an intended kosher slaughter). Rather this is a man driven to reasonable revenge by his persecutors. This in itself is not a new take. It’s the only possible option for a modern enlightened production. But seeing Jews play a scene that for centuries has made Jews shift uncomfortably in their seats, has the effect of filleting the play of anti-Jewish malice. Perhaps it shouldn’t. The play is the play, no matter who plays it. But it does. Or did for me. And perhaps next time I see it, I’ll shift in my seat a little less.

Last updated: 2:12pm, May 31 2012