Productions 1932 - 1997

A selection of RSC productions, listed by year and director:

Greg Doran (1997)
This production opened with a darkly atmospheric scene on the wharves of a Renaissance Venice, with merchants and prostitutes busy trading their wares. In contrast, Belmont was a bright and glittering place, presided over by a brisk Portia who appeared in a splendid new dress in every scene. Philip Voss was a soberly dressed, intelligent and deeply feeling Shylock whose grief at his daughter's escape was clear to see. On discovering her flight, he stood in the dark tower of his prison-like house, clutching his head as the structure spun madly around him. At the trial, Bassanio spilled out a great flood of gold coins (provided by Portia) in his offer of payment of the debt. The coins were left unheeded as the action proceeded until Shylock and Antonio both knelt on them, facing one another, the one having escaped death, the other spared it at the cost of his faith. Shylock repeatedly slipped back as he tried to get up from such a treacherous floor and no-one was prepared to help him, The same dangerous carpet of gold remained on the floor for the final scene in Belmont, adding an appropriately ominous note to the betrayals and reconciliations of the lovers.

David Thacker (1993)
The text in this modern-dress production had been carefully editorialized to allow an unambiguously wronged Shylock, driven to retaliate against an unjust society. In a manner reminiscent of the nineteenth-century Shylock of Henry Irving, David Calder's Shylock made a poignant return to his abandoned house, having fought his way through the bawdy carnival revellers, behind whose pig masks were hidden his daughter and her clandestine lover. This Shylock was first seen as a smartly suited businessman at his computer desk in an ultra-modern City bank. After the desertion of his daughter, he abandoned all attempts to be assimilated into Venetian society and adopted, instead, an explicitly different and Jewish style of dress.
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Bill Alexander (1987)
This Portia was complacently accustomed to wealth and privilege, blithely dismissing her Moroccan suitor with the slur on his race which is so often cut. The frequent spitting and physical violence dealt out by the Christians to Antony Sher's exotic, Levantine Shylock clearly showed a society ruled by a sadistically bigoted group. At the trial, Shylock approached his victim with terrifying energy and determination, donning his prayer shawl and chanting Jewish prayers. This Antonio wanted nothing more than to be killed in such a sensational way, thus ensuring that he would bind his beloved Bassanio to him even after death. In the production's final moments, Antonio lingered in order to help Jessica retrieve her fallen crucifix (a gift from her new husband), only to hold it deliberately out of her reach as the stage went to black.

John Barton (1981)
This was a revival of the 1978 production, recast and restaged for the RSC's main house. Shylock, played by Davd Suchet, was now an opulently dressed, cigar-smoking business man, confidently moving among the Christians, sure of his superiority. Portia, played by Sinead Cusack, sat with a symbolic golden chain across her lap as she waited for her suitors to choose among the caskets. Portia was the only character to show compassion to Shylock in his defeat at the end of the trial. She stretched out to help him stand up after he had stumbled to the floor, but he ignored her hand and stoically got up by his own means.
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John Barton (1978)
Since this production was staged in the RSC's studio theatre, The Other Place, there could be little in the way of scenery. A few pavement café tables and the late-nineteenth-century costume suggested an Italy where women and Jews might well be oppressed. Patrick Stewart's Shylock spoke with the carefully precise enunciation of a non-native speaker. Only his yarmulke and the glimpse of a yellow sash under his shabby black waistcoat indicated any cultural difference, both of which were ostentatiously on show in the trial scene. Despite his wealth, this Shylock was too mean to spend any of it on outward show; he smoked miserly little hand-rolled cigarettes, the stubs of which he kept in a tin for future use. At the end of the trial he himself knocked off his yarmulke and exited on a forced laugh at his own expense in response to Gratiano's brutal joke. This Shylock was survivor, whatever the personal cost might be. Portia's household had a strongly Chekhovian atmosphere. She was first seen wrapped in her dead father's black greatcoat, contemplating the caskets as the key to freedom and happiness, the unlocking of which was not in her power.

Terry Hands (1971)
The opening of this production addressed the play's strange mixture of Venice and Belmont - the one an urban trading centre, the other a fairy-tale world of riddles and captive virgins. It began with the fantastical spectacle of toy galleons being moved about the patterned stage floor according to the fall of the dice thrown by Antonio and his companions in what looked like a giant game of snakes and ladders. The casket by which Portia was won contained a life-sized golden effigy of the woman herself (played by Judi Dench). Emrys James's Shylock was the bogey man of fairy tales, described by the critic of the Daily Telegraph as 'a stage villain, barefoot, robed in old curtains, with a mouthful of spittle and plenty of oi-yoi-yoi'.

Clifford Williams (1965)
Eric Porter gave a tough, unsympathetic reading of the role of Shylock in this production set in the Elizabethan period, in which Janet Suzman played Portia. Audiences were given the opportunity to see the play in an unfamiliar context by the season's scheduling of Christopher Marlowe's play, The Jew of Malta. Eric Porter played the leading character in this production, too - the unscrupulous Jew, Barabas. For the first time at Stratford there was the unmistakeable suggestion of a homosexual dimension to the relationship between Bassanio and Antonio.

Michael Langham (1960)
The compelling performance of Peter O'Toole as Shylock dominated this production. With irresistible authority, O'Toole commanded the stage, drawing the audience's eye even if only sitting and sharpening his knife on the sole of his shoe. His was a tragic, very human Shylock, giving a grimly ironical laugh at the sparing of his own life at such a cost and still priding himself on his sense of what is right as he promised to sign the deed if it were sent after him. Dorothy Tutin's girlish Portia was a tiny figure set against this tall man; when they faced each other at the end of the trial it was clear that the two were irreconcilable.

Theodore Komisarjevsky (1932)
The comedy of the play was emphasized in this production. The director defied the old conventions of sentimentality and the picturesque with a bold stylization of design and acting style. An exuberant Venice of higgledy-piggedly hump-backed bridges and toppling bell towers split down the middle to usher in Belmont. Bruno Barnabe's Launcelot Gobbo was central to the carnival spirit of the production. Flamboyantly dressed as Harlequin, he led a masque of pierrots to open the show and his clowning with his father was full of inventive and dextrous physical comedy. Randle Ayrton as Shylock managed to bring out the comedy of the role and its humanity in a complex, unsentimental performance.

A full list of RSC productions with details of cast and production team can be found in the RSC Performance Database on the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust website.

Written by Rebecca Brown and Suzanne Worthington © RSC

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