'Springtime for Shylock and Othello'?

Only a few months ago, when Cedric Messina was executive producer of "The Shakespeare Plays" on PBS, he tried to sign James Earl Jones to play "Othello," but British Equity refused to allow the American actor to play the role. Messina, outraged, stated that he would simply refuse to do "Othello" until the union reversed its archaic ruling.

Well, British Equity is still adamant -- but Cedric Messina has been replaced as executive producer. And Jonathan Miller, the new executive producer, has chosen to cast a most unlikely "Othello" -- the very same blond, Nordic Anthony Hopkins who so recently was also outrageously miscast as Hitler in the aforementioned "The Bunker." Well, one hopes we are not going to see a "Springtime for Shakespeare" in the making. . . .

Meantime, though, Dr. Miller is presenting a splendid (if controversial) "Merchant of Venice" next week (PBS, Monday, 8-11 p.m., check local listings for premiere and repeats). This BBC-Time-WNET/NY production is the second in Season 3 of the six-year production schedule. It is a fast-moving, challenging tragicomedic production which loads itself down with stereotypical but believable characters -- especially that of Shylock, played with an incessant series of bromidic Jewish mannerisms by Warren Mitchell. Gemma Jones, the Duchess of Duke Street, plays Portia with utterly believable intensity.

For those who object to the stereotypical Shylock, executive producer Miller has anticipated the controversy and provides lots of discussion about the allegedly anti-Semitic nature of the play: There were no Jews in Elizabethan England, he explains, and Shakespeare took his stereotypes wherever he found them. In any event, according to Miller and Mitchell, it is indeed a play aboutm anti-Semitism but also about oath vs. obligation, law vs. grace, Old Testament vs. New.

Don't be surprised if you find the brilliant and amusing Miller conversation fore and aft as enjoyable as the play itself. Miller and Mitchell, both Jewish themselves, try to explain why they felt compelled to play Shylock with such outrageous stereotypical mannerisms. And, if the reasoning is not altogether clear, well . . . getting to the conclusions i s more than half the fun.

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