Life & Culture

The Gentile Shylock

In one of the more daring castings of recent times, a Palestinian is starring as Shakespeare's infamous Jew. So why won't he talk about it?


The Green Room at the Royal Shakespeare Company's rehearsal studios in Stratford-upon-Avon was an interesting place last week. This is where actors hang out until they are needed in rehearsal. Some pore over their lines, lips moving as they read. Others chat, joke, eat, drink coffee and eat packed lunches. But on this particular day there are two productions being worked on in separate rehearsal studios - Marlowe's The Jew of Malta and Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice. Cast with two separate ensembles, many of the actors in Jew have never met their counterparts in Merchant, perhaps the two plays in the canon that contain the most virulent antisemitism.

Still, as is usually the case in a room full of actors, there is a gossipy air and a sense of camaraderie, except perhaps for one man sitting on his own with a half empty mug beside him. Makram Khoury is the Royal Shakespeare Company's latest Shylock - a role that has attracted the cream of British acting talent in this country, including Patrick Stewart, Antony Sher, David Suchet and Laurence Olivier. Khoury is probably the least famous of these, but possibly the most intriguing.

Born in Jerusalem in 1945, an Israeli Palestinian, the actor is highly regarded in Israel and is the only Arab to have received Israel's top acting prize. Internationally he has appeared on screen in such high-profile movies as Steven Spielberg's Munich and Aaron Sorkin's West Wing, in which he played a Palestinian leader negotiating with the US (Martin Sheen's) government. In the Israeli film Magic Men he played a Greek-born Holocaust survivor who returns to Salonika to find the magician who saved his family. There was opposition within Israel to Khoury taking that role.

"A lot of producers didn't want Makram," said Magic Men co-director Erez Tadmor in an interview for The Jerusalem Post. "It was a serious problem. People said he doesn't know about the Holocaust and about Judaism…" Which is absurd. Take that view to its logical conclusion and only mass murderers could play Macbeth. Or more absurd still, no Jew could play a Nazi. And of course, many have.

But the heat of the increasingly volatile Middle East, even within the relatively rational borders of Israel, can make hummus of common sense. Perhaps that's partly why, having initially agreed to an interview, Khoury changed his mind. Could this be why, after it had been agreed that Khoury would talk exclusively to me about his approach to the role and the extent to which life as an Israeli-Palestinian informs his performance of Shylock, the interview was cancelled?

You can't blame him. When you think of the pressures that were applied by pro-Palestinian campaigners to Israel's Habima Theatre when they brought their Merchant to London's Shakespeare's Globe in 2012, what might await Khoury - who has also acted with the Habima theatre - if he were to jump into that often uncivilised debate as an Arab playing Shylock? You can imagine attacks being launched from both sides: from Jews who think that an Arab such as Khoury (with a Christian background) has no business portraying a Jew in what many see as an antisemetic play, to pro-Palestinian campaigners who might criticise the actor for sympathetically playing a victim of anti-semitism, which is, after all, the evil without which Israel would never have existed.

But without wanting to give succour to those who think that there are roles that actors from a particular race or religion should not play, casting an Israeli Palestinian - a gentile who lives as part of a minority within a largely Jewish society - in the role of Shylock, forces a rethink of Shakespeare's play which is, of course, about a Jew who lives in a gentile society. Not only does it speak of the infinite adaptability of Shakespeare, it is an example of how Shakespeare is as political as any modern playwright. For suddenly it is possible to think about Shylock not only as a Jew in a gentile society, but as a gentile in a Jewish society.

Director Polly Findlay is at pains to point out that her production and her decision to cast Khoury is not intended to focus minds on Israel or turn the play upside down.

"It seems to me that Shylock is choosing to lead his life as a Jewish venetian," she says during a tea break from rehearsals. "And Shylock is not somebody who has to feel he has to choose between his two cultures in the way [his daughter] Jessica does. Makram is somebody who identifies absolutely with both Israeli and Palestinian cultures. That's the experience in his life that feeds directly into Shylock's experience in the play. It illuminates what is in the text rather than seeks to turn it upside down."

That is a shame, it seems to me. What looks to be a brilliantly audacious piece of casting that has the potential to charge Shakespeare's already controversial play with the politics of the modern world, or even more exciting, the politics of modern Israel, has been either missed or deliberately avoided. Back in rehearsals Khoury is working on the crucial court scene. A bare-chested Antonio waits for Shylock's knife. And then Portia finds the loophole that gets Antonio off the hook. It is the moment in which Shylock traditionally objects to Portia's judgement that prevents him from exacting his longed-for revenge. But Findlay has a more nuanced suggestion.

"Remember that you're the smartest person in the room," she tells Khoury. "You know these people. You have been here before. You know where this is going and you need to leave the room as quickly as possible."

They do the scene again and this time Khoury's Shylock responds to his fate with a smile of knowing recognition. And behind that smile there is the possibility that this Shylock has experienced what it is to be a minority within a Jewish society.

This is of course, complete conjecture. But this being the third major production this year of Shakespeare's tiresome play in which unreasonable Jewish revenge is the driving force of the play's drama, to some it might come as a welcome distraction to find an unintended consequence of this unexpected casting - the possibility of a future production of Merchant set in Israel in which the play's Jews are Arabs.

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