Shylock and Antonio painting by Kathleen Barrett
In 1987 the Chicago-born artist, Kathleen Barrett, became the Company’s first non-British artist-in-residence. She produced this stunning oil painting of Shylock (Antony Sher) and Antonio (John Carlisle) from Bill Alexander’s production, which opened at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in April 1987. Shylock can be seen flicking his abacus (an ancient counting device consisting of sliding beads, thought to have originated in China) while a pair of scales is prominently displayed in the foreground. Jessica is just visible behind her father, Shylock. The production was also notable for reuniting the director with actor Antony Sher after their earlier successful collaboration on Richard III in 1984. Bill Alexander joined the company in 1977 under Trevor Nunn, from whom he “learnt hugely about mise-en-scène and about bringing the best out of people” Independent, 12 November 2013. He was Associate Director 1984–91 and Honorary Associate Director from 1992.
Oil painting by Kathleen Barrett
© RSC Theatre Collection –
Kit Surrey’s Venetian set
"Kit Surrey has designed a dark and brooding Venice where dank mist rises from the canals” Giles Gordon, London Daily News, 30 April 1987
Designer Kit Surrey’s set for the Royal Shakespeare Theatre was dominated by an over-arching bridge, reminiscent of the Rialto bridge in Venice. In this image we see Shylock’s ‘lair’ consisting of an exotic-looking black canopy, a daybed and a table containing a pair of a scales and an abacus. Antony Sher (Shylock) taught himself how to use the abacus properly and the prop version had to be both realistic and durable because it was thrown across the stage at each performance. The set design and props together with Andreanne Neofitou’s costume reinforced Shylock’s alien status in a predominantly Christian city. The crumbling plaster at the back of the set was divided by a jetty, either side of which could be seen the Christian image of a Madonna and the Jewish Star of David, which emphasized the racial and religious divisions at the heart of the production. Two wooden staves at the edge of each side of the stage reminded us that Venice is a city precariously constructed on a lagoon.
Photo by Joe Cocks Studio Collection
© Shakespeare Birthplace Trust –
Shylock and Solanio
“The villainy you teach me I will execute…” Shylock, Act 3 Scene 1
In the 400 years since the play was first performed, actors have wondered how to tackle Shakespeare’s Shylock. Antony Sher’s background as a South-African Jew informed his uncompromising interpretation which chimed with the production’s emphasis on an openly racist Venetian society where the Christians spat at Shylock with impunity. Sher’s Shylock was a mixture of servility and insolence but after his daughter, Jessica, eloped, he snapped and became intent on murderous revenge. Cultural differences were emphasized by Andreanne Neofitou’s costume designs: the Christians were resplendent in their 17th century period dress, while Shylock wore traditional ethnic robes and a turban, as we can see in this production photo, which also shows an attentive Solanio (Gregory Doran). The question of Jewish identification was raised in the stage manager’s rehearsal notes for 10 March 1987: “this should be a star of David (outlined not blocked- see the design on the back wall) possibly on a dark background hung on a thong or chain…large enough to fit over his [Sher’s] turban.” In production, the star of David was incorporated into Shylock’s cloak. During the same season, Barry Kyle directed Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta at the Swan Theatre, which provided an interesting comparison with Shakespeare’s treatment of a Jewish moneylender.
Setting for caskets and Shylock’s table
This stage manager’s sketch shows the prop settings for the caskets and Shylock’s table . The three caskets of gold, silver and lead were placed on a miniature crane on the front of the stage for the scenes in Belmont where Portia’s suitors make their choices. The attention to detail was crucial to ensure that these props were in exactly the right place on stage when needed. The note on the gold casket diagram reads “scroll in right eye [of the skull] make sure it is weighted correctly”, presumably to prevent it blowing away on stage or tipping over. The silver and lead casket scrolls were placed under a mirror and portrait respectively. Even the orientation of Portia’s portrait in the lead casket was specified as “face S/L [stage left]”. On Shylock’s table, the stage manager’s notes are equally precise “scales closed check bottom right clean inside and other sides should have writing on”.
The Prince of Morocco chooses his casket
….Deliver me the key:
Here do I choose, and thrive as I may! Prince of Morocco, Act 2 Scene 7
In this production photo, the Prince of Morocco (Hakeem Kae-Kazim) makes his fateful choice of the gold casket watched over by Portia (Deborah Findlay) and Nerissa (Pippa Guard). Just visible in the foreground is the one arm of the small crane supporting the silver and gold caskets. Kit Surrey designed each casket to resemble a miniature porticoed Palladian villa, the model for which can still be seen today in the Veneto region of Italy near Venice. The theme of conspicous wealth was also picked up in Andreanne Neofitou’s sumptuous costumes for the Prince and Portia, consisting of rich-looking fabrics and sparkling jewelry. Making her RSC debut , Deborah Findlay’s Portia was described by Michael Coveney as “a stuck up Daddy’s girl”, Financial Times, 30 April 1987.
Prompting the trial
This extract from the 1987 stage manager’s prompt book features the climactic trial in Act 4 Scene 1. On the left hand page, the play text is annotated with cue numbers for lighting and blocking (movements onstage) while the opposing right hand page shows the positions of actors on a diagram with an explanation. The first cue reveals that Bassanio spat and Shylock turned up stage after the line “Had been her husband, rather than a Christian”. After Portia tells Shylock that the law allows him to cut a pound of flesh from Antonio, a jubilant Shylock (Antony Sher) performed an invented ritual (cue 4A) which involved washing each hand three times and dripping three drops of blood from a horn while intoning the Shefoch Chamatcha, an actual Hebrew text recited at the Passover when a cup is drunk to Elijah, invoking him to punish the tormentors of Israel. The text from Psalm 79:6-7 begins ‘Pour out Your wrath upon those who do not know You”. During this ritual, the Christians recited the Lord’s prayer in Latin.
Trial scene prop list
This stage manager’s list details the props to be placed on stage for the trial scene (Act 4 Scene 1) with an explanation of how they were to be used. Thus, we discover how Antonio is restrained before Shylock attempts to claim his penalty: “The yoke is to strap Antonio to and should look as if it came from a tree. The 3 pieces of sash are to attach his arms to the opposite ends of the yoke. The third pieces to tie his feet together”. Interestingly, ‘The Bond’ at the centre of the drama was made from light cloth, flexible enough to look like parchment but also durable enough to survive numerous performances. A practical note of concern for Pippa Guard (Nerissa, disguised as a law clerk) is revealed in the comment that the law books should be strapped together and not be too heavy because she needs to carry them together with a lectern on her back.
Shylock poised to take his pound of flesh
“A volcano of suppressed vengeance” Milton Shulman, London Evening News, 30 April 1987
Having worked himself up into a frantic state by performing the ritual, Antony Sher’s Shylock then proceeded to extract his bloody due from the hapless Antonio (John Carlisle), as we see in this production photo. From the stage manager’s rehearsal notes for 2 April 1987, we discover that the tension in the scene was further enhanced by ensuring that Shylock’s scabbard was metal lined to create a really sharp sound when he drew the dagger. Michael Billington noted that Sher’s Shylock was an unheroic figure who “burned with an obsessive, sacerdotal lust for revenge”, The Guardian, 1 May 1987. The trial scene was innovatively staged by Bill Alexander as an extension of the street scenes so there was no distinct courtroom or dock. It was typical of his uncompromising production which presented a cruel decadent society, riven by racism.