Do you know me, father? The Merchant of Venice through new eyes
Capitalism, antisemitism, and patriarchy: Abigail Graham’s new production of The Merchant of Venice prompts conversations about human complicity in social inequality
How might we look at our own internalised racism, misogyny, antisemitism? More importantly – what are we going to do about it? Director Abigail Graham’s production of The Merchant of Venice, opening in our Sam Wanamaker Playhouse as part of our Winter 2021/22 season this February, promises to take a confronting look at the influence of society on human behaviour.
The Merchant of Venice is perhaps one of Shakespeare’s most controversial works. Antonio takes a loan from the Jewish money-lender Shylock, to help his friend court Portia. When Antonio can’t repay the loan, Shylock demands a pound of his flesh, and it is left to Portia, now married to Antonio’s friend Bassiano, to save him. On the surface, it’s a play about conflicts of self-interest. But Abigail sees so much more: ‘For me, The Merchant of Venice is a play about parent child relationships and how capitalism and patriarchy pollute those relationships. It’s also about how capitalism and patriarchy only work for a certain type of person, and how we are all pitted against one another. By we, I mean everyone that is not a white Christian man’.
Indeed, Abigail’s production certainly promises a ‘non-traditional’ approach, and this, she explains, is as a result of her lived experience: ‘As a Jewish woman, I can only look at [the play] through a Jewish woman’s eyes’. As part of this approach, the play will be told from the perspective of the two Jewish characters in the play – Shylock and Jessica – with a new structure. This, Abigail believes, will open offer up new perspectives in how the play is seen: ‘By changing the order of scenes in the play, not only are we following Shylock’s journey; we are laying bare how antisemitic and patriarchal this hyper-capitalist society is’.
Abigail hopes to show the complexity of each character through her retelling. Shylock is a widower who has to look after his daughter. ‘Because he’s been spat at, and called antisemitic slurs, and then his daughter runs away, he becomes everything that society says he is’. Portia is often seen as oppressed as a woman, ‘but she is also a racist, and is antisemitic. She doesn’t use her privilege for good, or to bring others up, she uses it to keep others down, which is interesting when thinking about power and race’.
The Merchant of Venice plays in the intimate confines of our candlelit Sam Wanamaker Playhouse for the first time. Abigail states the Playhouse’s ‘courtroom atmosphere’ fits perfectly with the nature of the play: ‘As the audience, we are judge and jury… we’re also looking at how unfair the laws are, and how not everyone has the same rights’. Such a sentiment feels very current, and Abigail hopes this will translate through the play: ‘Minorities are being pitted against each other. Anti-immigrant, anti-refugee, racist, antisemitic narratives are ones that permeate contemporary society. It’s horrific’.
Our Sam Wanamaker Playhouse will reflect the burgeoning mercantile economy of London, which Abigail doesn’t see as much different to its original setting of Venice: ‘they’re both hyper-capitalist societies, where everyone has a price, or worth’.
Earlier in January, we announced the Cast & Creatives behind The Merchant of Venice, aiming with this Company to reflect the multi-cultural landscape of London and Venice as it was, and is now.
Shakespeare’s play is complex and has myriad interpretations – what the play means to one audience member to another, to Abigail as Director and each of the Acting Company, will be very different, due to each individuals’ lived experience. Through working on The Merchant of Venice with a diverse Company, we can allow all of those different interpretations to breathe.
Speaking on her approach to the play, Abigail puts the Company and their experiences first: ‘My way in is gathering a diverse group of artists and asking them about their experience in London. Listening to the experience of the diverse collaborators and my own lived experience is how I’m entering the play’.
In The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare is asking us to see each other for who we are, rather than who society deems us to be. Restructuring the play gives us an opportunity to really see Shylock, and in turn, Portia, in all her complexity. ‘She’s not the great white saviour’, says Abigail, ‘she’s an immensely privileged young woman who condemns someone with less privilege than her, and yet she’s only doing it so she can survive: because she is a woman and in that society you have to do certain things to survive. It has made me and the Company question the rules of our society now’.
‘Playful, human, and confronting’ are the three words Abigail uses to summarise the play: ‘It’s not a lecture. It’s asking the audience to look at someone who, for the majority, is the ‘other’ to them. It’s asking them to really sit with that discomfort, and question their own prejudices’.
We hope that this production of The Merchant of Venice will prompt conversations about how complicit we all are in the structural inequalities in society, and how we might all look at our internal prejudices without judgement.
Globe scholars will be joined by theatre artists and scholars to discuss race and social justice in The Merchant of Venice as part of our series of free online Anti-Racist Shakespeare webinars, on 15 March 2022, 6.00pm. This series is generously sponsored by Cambridge University Press.