Thursday, September 17, 2020



Christopher Walken, Sydney Walker.

THE MERCHANT OF VENICE [Dramatic Revival] A: William Shakespeare; D: Ellis Rabb; S/L: James Tilton; C: Ann Roth; F: Repertory Theatre of Lincoln Center; T: Vivian Beaumont Theatre; 3/1/73-4/7/73 (44)

Ellis Rabb’s idiosyncratic, modern-dress revival of The Merchant of Venice at Lincoln Center produced considerable debate. The Venice seen here was a world of hedonists and debauchees, a compound, in John Simon’s words, of such films as “L’Aventurra, La Dolce Vita, and the freak show of Fellini Satyricon.

Christopher Walken, Peter Coffield, Josef Sommer, Amy Levitt, Philip Bosco.

Antonio (Josef Sommer) and Bassanio (Christopher Walken) were gay lovers, Bassanio was a surly fortune hunter less interested in Portia (Rosemary Harris) than in her money, Portia’s Belmont was a yacht, the elegantly dressed and sunglassed characters sat around sipping Cinzano in al fresco cafes, and, among other novelties, German and Italian phrases were slipped into the dialogue. Portia was a decadent fashion plate with a bitchy personality, and Shylock (Sydney Walker) was a noble, dignified businessman in a dark suit and homburg.

Rosemary Harris.

Virulent reactions came from those who claimed that Rabb’s tinkering did nothing to illuminate the text, but robbed it of its color, vitality, and humor. The heavy cuts in the speeches also drew unfriendly fire. Simon assailed most of Rabb’s innovations, declaring the “nonsensical Shylock” an obvious “cowardly” attempt to play down Shakespeare’s anti-Semitic characterization. “It would be unfair to several other directors to call Ellis Rabb the worst director in America, but he is almost certainly the most perverse.” Clive Barnes felt the unusual “diversions prey on the attention and detract from the poetry.” Martin Gottfried hated the “offensive” and “racist” play, condemning the production as “ridiculous and irrelevant.”

Others, however much difficulty they had in accepting Rabb’s ideas, nevertheless found the work intriguing and extremely well done. They saw that Rabb wished the production to reveal the theme of venality among the Jew haters and to incite pity for the despised money lender, but believed Shakespeare’s romantic comedy had been unfortunately abandoned in the process. As Julius Novick noted, “Rabb’s conception has been deeply thought, and it is fleshed out on stage with fervent conviction.” Jack Kroll added, “Rabb’s Venice has power and poetry as an ambience for the play’s moral and ethical ambiguities. . . . The result is Lincoln Center’s most intriguing Shakespeare ever.”

Rosemary Harris may have been too old for Portia, and some considered her less than fully effective, but hers was clearly the strongest performance, especially in its melodic vocal quality, its intelligence, and its technical control. Sydney Walker’s Shylock showed a tendency to bog down in long pauses and an air of tragic suffering, but he garnered much sympathy for his beleaguered Jew. Christopher Walken’s Bassanio was badly spoken and monotonously mannered, qualities that nonetheless bolstered his subsequent career on stage and screen.