Shylock in the Shadow of the Shoah

Anti-Israel protests set stage for Habima's 'Merchant of Venice' at London's Globe Theater.

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Despite a looming anti-Israel boycott, the Habima National Theater is scheduled to perform William Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice" in Hebrew on May 28 and 29 at Shakespeare's Globe Theater in London. It will be part of the International Shakespeare Festival preceding the Olympic Games, presenting the entirety of the work by the genius of Stratford in 37 languages.

Respected theater people in England have already called on the festival's management to uninvite Habima, in keeping with a boycott of everything Israeli because of the Palestinian issue. Habima has been targeted because it is an Israeli institution and its being the national theater does not make things easier.

The protesting voices have nothing to do with theater, or the quality of the production. This new production has been performed five times only at Habima's small Bartonov Hall. Only after the two performances in London will it get its run in Israel and the public have the chance to know how Habima represented Israeli theater in an international Shakespeare festival.

And even though in light of the circumstances the production itself and its quality don't make all that much difference, I went to see it on Sunday with a great deal of doubt in my heart, as the decision of Habima's artistic director Ilan Ronen to perform "The Merchant of Venice" at the Globe was made public before he had even made up his mind who would play Shylock.

I was equally disturbed that Ronen, who has managed three theaters and directed dozens of productions in a nearly 40-year career, has never until until now directed any of Shakespeare's plays.

I am revealing this as a prelude to saying that Habima is heading into the eye of what seems to be a kind of an international storm with a very good production, with a unique interpretation that - even if I could and even if I wanted to argue with it - is liable to make things very difficult for the protesters in London if they at all are attentive to what happens on stage, and if the physical conditions make it possible to create the visual experience that is an important part of the production's impact.

Here it is necessary to say something about Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice." The play, as everyone knows, is a romantic comedy about a wealthy heiress courted by a young Venetian, with the joy in the plot blighted by a comic villain, who is also a Jew. The Christian milieu harasses the Jew but also needs his money and therefore allows him to live and conduct business. When he is insulted more than usual and aims to take revenge by exploiting the existing rules of the game and threatening the life of a Christian, his insistence on the dry letter of the law (which protects Jews in Venice because they are useful), and his unwillingness to compromise lead to his defeat.

Climactic opening

After World War II, during which the Jews were persecuted, tortured and cruelly murdered by the Germans and their collaborators, this play no longer exists as a dramatic work. Whenever and wherever it is performed, it will always be perceived with the awareness that the Holocaust happened and the Jews were the victims, and also that the leaders of the State of Israel justify a considerable part of their policy - if not all of it - with the argument that Israel is the continuation and contemporary embodiment of those same Jews who were murdered, and that the state still acts as a victim, then and now.

And Ronen's production of "The Merchant of Venice" starts from exactly this assumption. After a jolly beginning in which the whole troupe bursts onto the stage and dances in carnival masks, the actors spread out into the audience shaking hands, promising an amusing experience. And then onto the playing space - the exposed thrust floor of Habimartef (the theater's small hall in the basement ), behind which the mazes of the theater's corridors are visible - come Shylock and his friend Tubal. In contrast to the Venetians who are dressed in off-white with golden ornaments, the Jews wear clothing in a dark reddish hue (costumes by Maor Tzabar ).

Shylock and Tubal return from the synagogue. Shylock is still wrapped in his prayer shawl and removes the straps of his phylacteries from his arm. As he is doing this, he is surrounded by the dancing Venetians in red carnival masks. They grab the skullcap off his head and conceal it as he scurries around trying to grab it back. They use the prayer shawl to wrap him up and also manage to snatch the phylactery bag from him and tie him up with the leather straps. As he lies helpless on the floor they kick him cruelly and then gaily exit the stage.

And then the merchant of Venice, Antonio, enters with his young friend Bassanio, still overcome with laughter, and Antonio declares: "In sooth, I know not why I am so sad." (The Hebrew translation is by Dori Parnes. )

In one respect the production ends in this first scene, which doesn't exist in Shakespeare's play but existed and still exists in reality. This is not an especially original approach and it applies completely immoderate emotional pressure on the audience. To paraphrase what Portia says to Shylock about his suit: "Of a strange nature is the interpretation the director follows / Yet in such rule that the critic / Cannot impugn it as it does proceed."

After what the Venetians do to Shylock as the audience in the auditorium watches, for no reason apart from hatred of the alien Jew, it is as though justification has been given for all the emotions and acts of revenge that follow. Whatever he does will not compare to what they have done to him. After what was done to the Jews, they see themselves as entitled to take revenge.

That Shylock begins the play tied up is part of the main visual image of the production, which has absolute textual justification. The word "bond" appears in this play 37 times (out of the 137 times the word appears in Shakespeare's entire dramatic oeuvre ). Its literal meaning is the writ of indebtedness Antonio has signed over to Shylock, supposedly in jest, declaring that if he does not pay his debt he will pay with a pound of flesh from his body.

However, the other meaning of he word is "tie," and in this other sense the word "bound," in the sense of "committed," appears in the play joined with the sense of being "tied up."

And indeed, in this play everyone is bound and committed: Bassanio is bound to Antonio by gratitude and money (which he has also borrowed from others ); Antonio commits to paying Shylock; Portia is committed to obeying her father's will that her husband be the one who guesses which of the three caskets is made of gold; Shylock is committed to his faith and subsequently he is also bound to his urges and his pain.

Thus, when the audience enters the auditorium it sees ropes dangling from the ceiling on pulleys. As the performance begins, the actors pull them aside and tie them off as the audience watches. Portia walks with six ropes trailing after her and Nerissa stretches them out toward the audience, as if to show that the young heiress is a marionette on strings. And in the famous trial scene, Antonio is tied body, arms and legs to ropes in anticipation of being strung up between them for the barbaric ritual of exacting the pound of flesh, and Shylock, a knife in hand, runs among the ropes and gets entangled in the spider web only to be tied up himself once again, this time by the law, in which he has placed his fate, while Graziano talks enthusiastically about the hangman's rope the Jew deserves.

Ronen is not the first to have used this image of ropes as a visual element in a production. However, in contrast to many productions that try, with varying degrees of success, to transpose the plot to other, modern times, if only to avoid the shocking and disgusting scene of Shylock sharpening a real knife and preparing to cut into the flesh of Antonio, this production, in the costuming, is set in 16th-century Venice and mainly takes place onstage and among the spectators: Portia and Nerissa climb to the last row of the auditorium (which is not essential but definitely creates a small commotion in the audience ). The actors pass through the aisles between the audience's seats and Shylock's bond of indebtedness is stretched above the audience's heads between the hands of Portia, dressed in the garb of a lawyer, and the hands of Shylock the plaintiff (though a more successful prop than printed computer paper might have been devised ).

Yaakov Cohen as Shylock

The Hebrew translation by Dori Parnes is faithful to the original, clear and poetic. However, the actors' speech is at times a problem. The very charming Hila Feldman in the role of Portia gallops helter-skelter through the "quality of mercy" speech in the trial scene as though someone were spurring her on. The entire opening dialogue of Act V between Lorenzo and Jessica ("In such a night as this" ) is given over to Tomer Sharon, who winningly plays Launcelot Gobbo (and a number of other minor characters ), and hangs paper lanterns onto the ropes - here too it would have been possible to find something a bit more festive - as he sings it, accompanied by live music. This is beautiful to watch - but it loses the poetry almost entirely.

When the text is acted by good verse speakers, such as Alon Ophir or Yousef Sweid, you both hear the poetry and feel the emotion in it. These two actors are the emotional pillars of the production, with Ophir knowing very well how to convey the deep connection between Antonio and Bassanio, just as he knows how to underline the fact that his character, like all the others, are above all tools of no value in an economic and political system. Yousef Sweid packs magical moments into every scene he is in; the audience can easily understand how he manages to charm both Antonio and Portia and cause them to sacrifice so much for his sake. Hila Feldman's charm serves her well in the role of Portia and Rinat Matatov makes good use of Nerissa's comic moments. I would happily have had a bit more gentleness and romance in the court of Belmont at the expense of the fuss with clothes, ropes and slipknots - but that is a matter of taste.

However, some of the other performances fall short. Ronen has invested a great deal in delineating the relationship between the Christian Lorenzo and Jessica, the Jew's daughter who betrays him (including the amusing "gag" when Portia does not remember her name and poor Jessica has to keep reminding her ), and this is an important and worthy subplot - but all the young actors playing these roles create rather dim presences.

Here we come to Yaakov Cohen in the role of Shylock. In my opinion his performance is an impressive achievement. He succeeds in causing the audience to feel for the character and see what the plot - within the play and outside of it - does to him. He has a kind of innocence and even naivete that compensates for the evil Shylock perpetrates. You see him hurting time and again. He demands vengeance and he succeeds in arousing the feeling that he deserves his vengeance. And then you see how he enters the trap, and how his adherence to the strict letter in the contract works to his detriment and is exploited against him.

Just as Ronen opened the production with a silent and violent scene that says it all, he ends it much the same way: After the rejoicing of the Christian lovers who win at Belmont, Shylock crosses the stage with a suitcase in hand and exits, back bent, to another exile.

And now let us see the audience in London raise a voice of protest against this Jew, who is forever a victim, though of himself and of his own nature but in the case of this production - mainly of the circumstances.

Yaakov Cohen (right) as Shylock in Habima’s 'Merchant of Venice,' which will play in London at the end of May despite expected anti-Israel protests.Credit: Gerard Alon