Brushing Up Our Shakespeare
Sir Peter Hall believes American actors like Dustin Hoffman could outdo the British. THEATER: INTERVIEW
On an inconspicuous side street not far from the River Thames, a slight man in jeans and sweat shirt is talking and gesturing intensely, his face within inches of another man's, who is leaning back against a parked car. A London street brawl in the making?Skip to next paragraph
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Not quite. The lean frame belongs to Dustin Hoffman, and the vehement words are Shakespeare's.
Inside a nearby building, a rehearsal for British director Peter Hall's production of ``The Merchant of Venice'' was in progress. The production played a sold-out run in London last summer, and now, having crossed the Atlantic, is set to open on Broadway next Tuesday.
Inside the hall at the rehearsal I visited last spring, Sir Peter was running through a scene with other cast members, while Hoffman and the other actor were going over their lines outdoors. Soon it was lunch time, and Hall, arguably Britain's most influential postwar theater director (he headed the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre), took a break over scrambled eggs and smoked salmon to tell me how he and Hoffman managed to team up for one of the most talked-about shows of the year.
``I knew Dustin slightly,'' recalled Sir Peter between mouthfuls. ``He called me up ... and said, `I want to do some Shakespeare; do you think I can?' I said, `It depends what it is, and how you want to begin.' He suggested one or two things that I didn't think were appropriate, particularly to start with. Then I mentioned Shylock to him, because it's a great part, and I think in this day and age it has to be played by a Jew, since the play is about racism. Just as I think Othello has to be played by a black man.''
Hall expands on this point: Today's society is acutely race conscious, he notes. ``Blessedly so,'' he adds; but this has led to certain taboos. ``And one of those taboos,'' he says, ``is one race imitating another. As a consequence, today, for example, I think Jewishness is better expressed by somebody who is Jewish than by somebody pretending to be. I don't insist on it. But I think it's more in tune with the particular times we live in.
But isn't casting a Jew as Shylock also a way of making more acceptable a play that may, to some, appear to feed into centuries old anti-Semitic sentiments?
``I don't think it's an anti-Semitic play,'' says Sir Peter. ``I think it's a play about intolerance, in which the Christians come out rather worse than the Jews. ... One of the things the play is saying is: Whatever the faults of the Jews as a minority, they have been produced by what the Christians have done to them; the `Hath not a Jew eyes,' that great speech, is conveying precisely that.
``I think what's brilliant about it is that Shakespeare wrote the play for an audience that would have been anti-Semitic. Yet he turned it right around and said to them, `Do you realize what you are doing?' ... The central point for me is that Shylock wants to be like the Christians, to some extent. He wants to belong; he wants to join the country club, and they won't let him. ... If the [production] works, your heart breaks for Shylock.''
Intolerance, Hall contends, is the overriding theme of every scene in the play, not only between gentile and Jew, but men and women, old and young, rich and poor, white and black. Each character, through the extremities of their circumstance, tries to achieve some form of maturity; yet, tantalizingly, the final act does not bring a complete resolution.
```The Merchant of Venice' doesn't have an easy, happy ending,'' the director says, ``but has always been so popular that there are ... a lot of clich'es surrounding it. The play is a bit like the `Mona Lisa': Everybody thinks they know it, so they don't really look at it.''