28/5/12, Shakespeare's Globe
Performed in Hebrew by Habima, the National Theatre of Israel; part of the Globe to Globe season. The one with the demonstrations.
There was airport-style security. The auditorium was flooded with blue T-shirted event security guys. There was a pro-Palestinian demo on the river front, a pro-Israeli demo up the street, hordes of police. There'd been calls for a boycott (from Mark Rylance among others) on the grounds that Habima has performed in illegal settlements on the West Bank.
Before the performance the Glove's artistic director Dominic Dromgoole came on stage to ask us, if there were protests during the performance, to stay calm and not attempt a citizen's arrest, and to remind any of us who were minded to protest that these weren't politicians or policy-makers but artists there to tell a story.
There were protests, and they were distracting, for the audience and (at one point) for the actors. From our seats round to one side of the Middle Gallery we had a good view of the interruptions, not least because two took place right next to us. During the first scene half a dozen demonstrators stood up unfurling Palestinian flags and banners a few seats to our right. They were quickly but necessarily rather noisily removed by stewards, who lifted them bodily out, among much sotto voce protest (one woman kept intoning "no violence" and then, rather more loudly after they'd got her as far as the staircase, "don't you dare touch me there!"). Not long after, a second group in adjacent seats unfurled more flags (which were whipped away) and then taped address labels over their mouths and stood for the remainder of the (long) first half in silent protest, from time to time raising their arms in a V for victory sign. Finally towards the end of the first half a group among the groundlings unfurled flags and "apartheid Israel" banners but were swiftly removed.
At the start of the second half a tall man among the groundlings shouted "Do Palestinians not have eyes?" during Shylock's famous speech. As he was led away he added "Do we not bleed?"; someone shouted "piss off" to laughter and applause. There was then a second interruption, which brought the cast to a halt, until someone in the audience shouted "Keep going, we're with you". I noticed audience members pointing furiously at the interruptors during all this so that the security guys could grab them -- a gesture which for some reason made me uncomfortable.
At the end there was of course huge applause from an audience most of whom were evidently supportive and many of whom (judging by the laughter at the verbal comedy) spoke Hebrew.
It all made it rather hard to concentrate on the play itself. It seemed a brisk and workmanlike production which started with Venetian carnival revellers in beaked bird masks beating up Shylock in dumbshow and ended with him trudging disconsolately, suitcase in hand, the wandering Jew sans daughter, sans money, sans home. This was Shylock's tragedy: an outsider, ill-treated, with legitimate grievances whose tragic flaw is to believe he can use the Christians' own law to exact revenge, only to find the law and the Venetian Christian establishment in turn destroy him. There were a handful of walkouts in the scene when, utterly humiliated, he is forced to trade his religion for his life.
The Venetians in this production are deeply unsympathetic: smug and obsessed with money. Bassanio chooses the correct casket to win Portia's hand but doesn't then instantly embrace her but ignores her in order to dance a celebratory jig with his servant Gratiano. In the trial scene Portia seems to be making it up as she goes along (a legitimate reading of the text), with the "not one drop of blood line" an inspired, spur of the moment idea. The only problem with that is it makes her whole intervention in Antonio's trial look like the self-indulgent gesture of a spoiled rich girl. The "comedy" around the rings she and Nerissa give their husbands (and which they give, in breach of their promises to their wives, to the "lawyers") is merely tiresome, the games-playing of rich kids which shows up poorly in contrast to the life and death drama of the trial scene (which may of course be the point).
It was hard to tell how good the performances were. Launcelot Gobbo was winning and funny. Shylock was dignified. Jessica was stunningly beautiful.
There were some nice touches in the staging. The carnival masks appeared frequently, always menacing, especially in the trial scene. The first two caskets were carried on actors' heads and lifted off to reveal masks -- a death's head and a fool; the foreign princes were played unashamedly for laughs, both of them rigged out in appropriate costume as we watched to the accompaniment of music, emphasising the theatricality of the whole business. Portia wore a harness attached to a spider's web of ropes held by six actors standing at the edges of the stage; it was lifted off her once a suitor had chosen correctly. The same harness and network of ropes (plus other ropes as well) held a bare-chested Antonio during the trial scene, and then Shylock.
It all added up to an impressive picture of an affluent society riddled with anti-semitism and of the plight of the dispossessed outsider. Amongst whom, of course, we should count the Palestinians.