Woman’s-eye ‘Merchant’ duo reflects favorably on Shylock role

by Mika Eglinton

Special To The Japan Times

Since it was founded in 1990 by Shakespeare scholar, actor and director Kaoru Edo, Tokyo Shakespeare Company has been producing the Bard’s plays translated by Edo in an adaptation series titled “Shakespeare on the other side of the mirror.”

Now, at the 100-odd-capacity Geki Sho-gekijo theater in Tokyo’s arty-boho Shimokitazawa district, TSC is currently reviving two plays from their stage history: “The Merchant of Venice,” first performed in 1994, and “The Garden of Portia,” Edo’s modern adaptation of the same quasi-comedy first performed in 2001.

This is the first time the two plays have been staged as a double bill, and both here share the same set though their casts are different. This mirroring effect is designed to allow the two pieces derived from the same source to critique each other.

Although “The Merchant of Venice” is frequently staged all over the world, this fairytale-like drama with its titular character named Antonio is widely controversial nowadays due to its antisemitic strand. And indeed, the Jewish moneylender Shylock — who famously insists on retrieving his “pound of flesh” from Antonio in repayment for a bad loan the antisemitic merchant has underwritten — was often presented as an evil, deceitful and greedy villain.

Until the 20th century, most audiences would applaud the climax scene in the law court of the Duke of Venice, when Shylock’s legal action to get a debt repaid is thwarted by the cunning rhetoric of Balthazar, a young male law doctor, who is actually the heroine Portia in disguise.

The defeated Jew is then not only deprived of his property and social position, but also his religion and identity by being forced to convert to Christianity.

It was only around the beginning of the 20th century that the character of Shylock began to be presented in a more sympathetic light. Since then, and particularly since the Holocaust, the work has come to be read and staged as a problematic tragedy reflecting the troubled past of the Jewish people.

Being particularly mindful of the historical experience of European Jews, Edo’s complementary work is sympathetic to Shylock — but in a very unexpected, original way.

Her “The Garden of Portia” is set in Italy in the early 20th century — narratively, 10 years after her version of “The Merchant of Venice” ends. The play revolves around Shylock and the three couples — Portia and Bassanio, Nerissa and Gratiano, and Jessica and Lorenzo — who are supposed to be each celebrating their anniversaries at Portia’s family seat of Belmont.

The play starts with the moneylender having a nightmare that he is forced by the heiress Portia to be “reborn out of Christ’s love.”

Yet despite his bad dream, and the dark image of Shylock as a tragic antihero, the audience witnesses his transformation as he learns about Christianity through Portia’s reading of the story of infertile Sara in the Old Testament. In the end, indeed, Shylock actually teaches her about God.

As a Christian convert renamed Augustine, Shylock becomes a respected Venetian citizen and renowned businessman. He gives moral support to Antonio, who is suffering from depression, and also provides financial support for his own daughter, Jessica, who had defied him to elope with Antonio’s friend Lorenzo but must now rely on her father as her husband is a leftwing activist with no income to provide for their children.

Toward the end of “The Garden of Portia,” Shylock even plays the role of an avuncular savior to Portia, who feels confined by her social status, is afflicted with infertility and then causes a traffic accident. To break free, she tries farming — but to no avail. Then her frustrations all become too much when, in Edo’s fine work, a mysterious and liberal poet named Maria, who may be a love child of Portia’s father, appears and hints at wanting to have an affair with Portia’s husband Bassanio. That’s when Portia jumps in her car and crashes it — which she claims causes her to lose her long-awaited baby.

Despite the conflicts, though, the play ends happily and Portia is given a baby by Jessica, who emigrates to America with her husband Lorenzo and their three other children.

As a woman directing Shakespeare, Edo, a rarity in Japan’s male-dominated theater world, successfully presents a strong female perspective on the macho Christian world of Shakespearean Italy. Just be ready for some slings and arrows when describing it.

“The Merchant of Venice” and “The Garden of Portia” run through Jan. 19 at the Geki Sho-gekijo in Shimokitazawa, Tokyo. Tickets ¥3,800 (¥3,000 for students). Visit www.tokyoshakespeare.com or call 090-8048-5013.