Essays: The Merchant of Miller |
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The Merchant of Miller

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 re-creating 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 gaberdine had been translated to a more gentlemanly but still intolerant ambience, where Shylock was welcome in the board-rooms 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 on 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 he 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.

The Writing’s on the Wall was an ‘Horizon’ (BBC2) about the way the architecture of a community governs the crime-rate. It was a solid job. We saw how some American cities had fallen for the mad architectural dream of tower-blocks and ‘a river of trees,’ only to find the projects vandalised to destruction and human life no longer safe. A vast estate in St Louis has failed so completely that it has had to be demolished with explosive.

Philpott, as I recall, had already talked about this in his mini-series on the Mississippi, but it was salutary to hear about it again in a more documented context. Professor Oscar Newman, the front-man, had the figures to prove that if people are given ‘defensible space’ in low-rise developments, they will govern themselves; but if they are isolated from one another with no territory to hold except their own apartments, the results will be death. The architects, declared the professor, have ‘bombed out.’ But we were shown some low-rise developments in San Francisco which achieved the same population density as the high-rise projects while maintaining a virtually crime-free community life. Whether Britain would copy the lesson was a question left dangling. Certainly we had already copied the errors: there were dire warnings of an alienated generation on the rampage. It was strange that there was at no point any mention of Jane H. Jacobs, the lady who first blew the whistle on the whole high-rise nightmare.

I’m putting politics off until next week, when this column will feature an All-Party Television Roundup. But it should be noted at this point that Healey is already emerging as a star, while Heath is further confirming his status as a natural comic. In the Tory Political Broadcast he solemnly warned of Labour’s intention to ‘tear up any sort of incomes policy.’ From the man who tore up the Prices and Incomes Board when he took office, that’s really something. ‘It’s a whole new world out there,’ he, gritted dynamically. It sure is. Come Dancing (BBC1) has acquired a new ‘Off Beat’ section, Crawley got 222 points to go into the lead on Young Scientists of the Year (BBC1), and there was a shake-up on ITV. Harry Hawkins is no longer plugging baked beans: Barlow’s flogging cat food.

The Observer, 17th February 1974

[ An edited version of this piece can be found in Visions Before Midnight ]