Hoffman's Formidable Shylock

THEATER REVIEW

The Merchant of Venice Play by William Shakespeare. Directed by Peter Hall. THE Peter Hall production of ``The Merchant of Venice,'' running through Feb. 24 at the 46th Street Theatre, harmonizes a profusion of elements - savagery and delicate lyricism, high and low comedy, romantic artifice and charged conflict. Such diversions as the playful casket scenes are presented as exquisite miniature masques. Sir Peter, who staged the recent London production with a significant number of the same cast, honors the poetry of the text while treating memorable set speeches with an unaffected simplicity. For instance, Portia (Geraldine James) handles the ``quality of mercy'' speech - not as a well rehearsed declamation but rather as an impromptu explanation of some fundamental truths. Thus does the disguised mistress of Belmont open the case that convicts the wretched money lender.

DUSTIN HOFFMAN'S formidable Shylock knows the uses of irony as well as of anger and outrage. He begins the question ``Hath not a Jew eyes...?'' as if he is coming fresh to the matter for the benefit of his gentile accusers. There is no mistaking the hatred of his ``The villainy you teach me I will execute'' as he prepares to exact a pound of Antonio's flesh. But the almost muted ``I am content'' with which he greets his sentence springs from desolation, a bitter acknowledgment of the inevitable in a court from which there are no appeals, a recognition that vengeance belongs to those with the power to inflict it.

The defection of Shylock's daughter Jessica (along with his ducats) and her elopement relates to the comedy's triple romance and leads to the romantic summit. The cadences of ``In such a night...'' are exquisitely delivered by Jessica (Francesca Buller) and Lorenzo (Richard Garnett). As the scene progresses, Chris Dyer's colonnaded courtyard setting opens onto an infinity of blue sky to greet the dawn illuminated by Neil Peter Jampolis (after Mark Henderson's original design).

The comely Miss James creates a Portia of wit, candor, and passion. Besides those already mentioned, the principals in this beautifully spoken revival include Leigh Lawson (the melancholy merchant Antonio), Nathaniel Parker (Portia's successful suitor Bassanio), Michael Sibbery and Julia Swift (Gratiano and Nerissa), Peter-Hugo Daly (the clown Lancelot Gobbo), Leon Leyden (Old Goggo)l, Herb Downer, Michael Carter, and Basil Henson.

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