Books: Visions Before Midnight — A pound of flash |
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A pound of flash

Admiring Olivier past extravagance, I was little pleased to discover that his Shylock (The Merchant of Venice, ATV), infected by the nervous bittiness of the surrounding production, crumbled to the touch.

The British theatre rations itself to one intellectual at a time and currently Jonathan Miller is the one. Being an intellectual is all right by me, and I sincerely hope that Miller will be allowed to go on having ideas until doomsday. It would be nice, though, if his ideas were all as good as most of them are big.

The Big Idea of setting The Merchant of Venice in the nineteenth century — apparently to underline the commercial aspects — used itself up in the first few minutes, leaving the viewer to contend with several hours of top hats, three-piece suits and bustles. Julia Trevelyan Oman did her usual fanatical-meticulous job in recreating the nineteenth-century Venetian interiors, thereby proving that nineteenth-century Venetian interiors bore a lulling resemblance to nineteenth-century Cromwell Road interiors: a few ceilings-full of reflected water-lights might have made a difference, but strangely they were not forthcoming, so all depended on a quarter of an hour’s worth of location footage. It had never been clear in the first place that the nineteenth century was at all an appropriate period in Venetian terms. The city was already far gone in decline by then, and Shakespeare manifestly wrote the play on the assumption that Venice was a fabulously wealthy maritime power.

The temporal dislocation was a big fault. As often with Miller, small faults abounded too. Portia and Nerissa left for Venice in a carriage. Upon returning they were to be seen toiling (or rather Nerissa was to be seen toiling while Portia, free of luggage, walked — a nice touch) for miles through the grounds of their house. So what happened to the carriage? Perhaps the horse drowned.

With all that, though the production had Mind. This is the quality one is grateful for to Miller: it’s the chief reason why his productions, when they reach television, are less of a piece but hold more of interest than the common output of classic drama. To show, in their first scene together, Antonio and Bassanio acting friendly to Shylock was to bring out the tension of the gentile-Jewish relationship far better than with the normal postures of ill-concealed hostility. Spitting on the gabardine had been translated to a more gentlemanly but still intolerant ambience, where Shylock was welcome in the boardrooms but somehow never got elected to the clubs.

A lot more such transforming thought, and the evening might have been saved. But alas, the supply was thin, leaving Olivier to create a whole world on his own. It had been said of the stage production that he took refuge in impersonating the George Arliss portrayal of Disraeli, but any fan of Walt Disney comics could turn on the set and see at a glance that he had modelled his appearance on Scrooge McDuck.

Whatever Olivier had done to his front teeth left his long top lip curving downwards in a fulsome volute on each side, producing a ducky look to go with his quacky sound, since for reasons unknown he had chosen to use a speeded-up version of his Duke of Wellington voice. When he put a top hat over all this, the results were Disney’s canard zillionaire to the life, and one couldn’t refrain from imagining him diving around in Money Barn No. 64 while bulldozers stacked dollars and the Beagle Boys burrowed through the wall. In a way he’s still too young for the role: his energy gave the lens a gamma-burn in the close-ups, and at one point of anger he broke into the hyena-walk of Hamlet heading for the platform or Richard looking for a horse.

Crippled, the evening slogged bravely on. The Prince of Morocco did a coon turn: ‘As much as ah deserb! Wah dat’s de lady.’ Two terrible sopranos sang to Bassanio. A good giggle, but why would Portia have them in the house? There are no indications in the text that she is meant to be tasteless — only that she is meant to be hard, snobbish and dull. There is nothing to be done with Portia, a point upon which Joan Plowright lavished abundant proof.

17 February, 1974