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Director Michael Radford and Al Pacino on the set of William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice

Photo © Copyright Sony Pictures Classics


Michael Radford sits at a table set near a window. The morning’s grey light is cast on him as if he’s posed, his close cropped gray hair and dark sweater composing a kind of portrait—precise, quiet, assured. The director best known for Il Postino has recently tackled another project as attentive to tone as theme and character, William Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice. Set in 16th century Venice, the film follows the complicated relationships—the fealties and tricks—between the merchant Antonio (Jeremy Irons) and his beloved friend Bassanio (Joseph Fiennes). When Bassanio asks Antonio for money in order to court the lovely (and very wealthy) Portia (Lynn Collins), Antonio borrows it from the Jewish usurer Shylock (Al Pacino), bitter after years of abuse from the Gentiles, who abhor but make use of his money lending services. When Shylock’s daughter Jessica (Zuleikha Robinson) runs off with a Christian boy, the father is distraught, and he takes out his vengeance on Antonio, in a debtor’s court: he hopes to exact literally from his client the price they agreed on, the famous “pound of flesh.”


PopMatters: It seems to me that your Merchant captures, or maybe creates, a sort of Venice-ness about Venice, where so many adaptations of Shakespeare turn the plays into Shakespeare.


Michael Radford: The first question people ask me normally is, “Is this a traditional version or is it modernized?” And I say, “It’s actually modernized but we’ve used traditional costumes.” I hate the word “tradition” in this context because it conjures up people in baggy tights, reciting a dead text. And there’s this sense that Shakespeare’s a dead text. However much you love it, it either has to be jazzed up or has to be revered in some way. I thought, “Let’s try and bring it alive.” And one of the first ways to do that was to put it into a context of reality, to set it very firmly in its period, like you would do with Chekhov, for instance, really set it in its period. If you do that, you start to bring the human psychology alive.


And Venice plays a big part in that. It’s a wonderful place now, but at that particular point, it was at its zenith. It was dark and decadent and there were many contradictions. And there was a mass of people, struggling and heaving. The streets were always crowded, particularly in the ghettos. And nobody washed. People have said to me, “Joe’s hair needed a bit of a wash.” But nobody washed in those days; they thought that washing gave you diseases. And they had reason: the plagues and everything seemed to come from public bathhouses.


PM: Speaking of washing, the use of the canals is also a significant visual break-out from stage versions.


MR: It was the first thing I thought of when I started to work on the screenplay. I had the plot, the characters, and the themes, so what was I supposed to do, as a writer? I thought I should go to Venice, where, as I was researching, I began to see these people moving around. Nobody walked in those days. You went by boat. Nowadays people walk around the corridors, but that was where the servants used to go. So that was a big inspiration to me: you see people floating in these dark vessels. And the sun rarely comes in, only for a couple of hours. The light falls in a beautiful way.


PM: And that clearly affects the frescos, in conception and in reception.


MR: Yes, and the frescos in the film are real, most of them. Not in the courtroom, because we shot that in the studios, but the Veronese, you can’t really duplicate that. We shot in Belmont, at La Malcontenta, one of the great Palladian villas. And what you discover about all that is that they lived a very promiscuous life, not sexually, but in the sense that there was no privacy. Everybody lived on top of each other, there was no division of rooms, for instance, really. When Antonio takes Bassanio into his bedroom, for instance, that’s his reception room.


PM: That’s a lovely scene, actually, because it articulates the complexities of their relationship, emotional and erotic.


MR: Yes, I’m quite pleased with that scene, actually. And it’s interesting because when we were editing the scene before it, which was much longer, in the previous room, I realized we needed to get to the bedroom sooner, and so I took out speeches, in particular by Graziano [Kris Marshall].


PM: What is your thinking on Antonio’s relationship with Bassanio?


MR: Jeremy always ticks me off and says, “No, no, no, it’s just a deep friendship,” but if you don’t have that sort of deep love, much is left unexplained. I said to him, “Whatever’s happened between them, when Bassanio comes to him to say he’s going to get married, the bottom falls out of his [Antonio’s] life.” He’s a lonely man. And not only that, but you can see him sort of despising of the Jewish minority as a sort of unhappiness, as he’s belonging to a minority in his own right. But if you don’t have that relationship, then the whole of Portia’s battle with Antonio for Bassanio doesn’t exist. And the last scene becomes a sort of kind of Christian jollity, which I don’t think it should be. I think it’s a scene in which everyone, in the end, is quite uncomfortable.


PM: How did you approach the cutting, of language or scenes?


MR: Everybody cuts Shakespeare. But my attempt is to bring this alive as a movie, and you have the capacity in movies to bring things alive in ways you just can’t in the theater. You can film people listening, you can bring attention to who’s listening. You have the ability to bring a subtext. But the trick really, because the language is so important, is to keep what’s necessary to advance the plot, and the great speeches, which do usually advance the plot, and really, to be very firm wit the rest of it. Some of it is just tyro stuff, people just go from metaphor to metaphor to metaphor. And that’s fine in the theater, you’ve got the time, but you don’t in the cinema. The moment the plot starts to creak, you’ve got to get on with it. And the camera is there to help you, you can see things happening, and you don’t have to explain them. I’ve had a lot of people say to me, “We just forget it’s Shakespeare, after five minutes.” And that’s great.


One of the dangers of doing a Shakespeare is that the more you read him, the more you perform it, the more you rehearse him, the better you understand it. So the actors, the director, indeed, everyone, the lighting guys and the technicians—by the time we’re done, they’re all in love with it. It happens to everybody. Unfortunately, the audience only gets to see it once, so you’ve got to engage them. We altered a number of words, not a lot, but words that have fallen into complete disuse, or whose meanings have completely changed. As long as it scanned. And we just spoke a little slower than you normally would, to allow people to follow it. We just tried to speak it in a way that wasn’t reciting. The worst offense that anybody could commit on the set was to be Shakespearean. I favor the actors underplaying what they do.


PM: Which goes to the question of casting Pacino, not known in recent years for underplaying. But a couple of speeches in particular (“If you prick us,” for instance) was quite intimate, and painful.


MR: Yes. If you get the psychology right, it is intimate and painful. And I asked him to underplay it, which he was perfectly happy to do. Often actors overplay because they’re unsure of themselves or their directors, so they rely on their own shtick to get them through it.


PM: And Irons is a useful foil for that.


MR: Yes, they’re such different styles. But both are exceptionally good at making Shakespeare clear.


PM: The gender switching is common in Shakespeare…


MR: Well of course, it took place in Shakespeare because female roles were played by boys. But once again, I have no idea what Shakespeare intended, but it doesn’t matter to me at this point. Because what you have is a Portia who has lots of power, who’s been brought up practically as a man, the only heir of her father. And yet she’s innocent in the ways of love, she’s a girl. She’s probably studied—I have her with a book in her hand the entire first part of the film. She’s probably studied law and wants to be a lawyer, but it’s forbidden to her. She finds this circumstance, which isn’t really a court of law, but it’s a debtor’s court, an attempt to claim a debt. And there’s a sort of plea bargaining, an attempt to reduce the debt. And she’s allowed by her cousin to go into the courtroom and to do this thing. The real reason she wants to go, I think, is to see why her husband wants to leave her on his wedding night! [laughs] And when she arrives there, she discovers what goes on. And she develops as a woman. The way that I play it, in being a man, she suddenly understands what it is. And she becomes more of a man than the men. In that last scene, she takes them apart. I find that very powerful, and I think Lynn plays it very well. In the screenings, the audience roars with laughter in that scene, and much of it is female laughter, because they see this great creation of Shakespeare’s, really using her intelligence for the first time. And she’s saying, “I’ve been there, I’ve done that, and now I’m not going to let it go, because I like it.”


PM: And that scene also gets at the violence that’s about to happen throughout the film, but doesn’t quite. It’s just continual threat.


MR: IT is. The way I perceive is that it’s very complex in terms of humanity. And I try to choose subjects that say, the world cannot be reduced to five sentences. Fundamentalism doesn’t work. All you can do as an artist is show the world as complex as it can be, these people are violent, they’re cruel, obnoxious, and they’re also, at times, incredibly sympathetic. The play switches from one to the other.


PM: I’m intrigued by Jessica, and the fact that you end with that image of her.


MR: Jessica is a very modern character. While we were shooting the film, an Afghani immigrant in the UK murdered his daughter because she’d run off with a Christian guy: he murdered her and called her a prostitute. She’s a member of a minority who finds themselves the object of racial abuse. And as a second generation in this place, she doesn’t have a very good relationship with her father, and wants to run away with this handsome guy. But once she’s done it, she finds herself a fish out of water, which you can do in movies, just show her standing in a corner, thinking, “Where am I? I don’t know any of this stuff.” And at the end, when everybody is arguing about loyalty, and they’ve all forgotten Shylock, she’s mortified at what she’s done. And we see her, with her ring, which again is a movie trick. It comes from the scene between Tubal [Allan Corduner] and Shylock, when he says he’s seen her give away her ring. And Shylock says it’s the ring his wife gave him, “I wouldn’t have given it away for a wilderness of monkeys.” It’s a wonderful speech, but in that moment, it’s thrown away, really, but we bring it back and show that she hasn’t given it away, and it’s a symbol of her loyalty to her father and her own culture.


PM: That she can no longer make public.


MR: Right. But it’s really her. And I think actually, that’s very complex.


PM: And it does go to the question, throughout the film, of who can make what public. Portia can reveal what she’s done in the end, because she’s privileged.


MR: Exactly that. Portia is rather a spoiled creature, but she’s immensely sympathetic, because she’s fighting for the cause of women.


PM: So much of the language in the play is about possession and material, and how you trade it or own it. And love becomes this contract.


MR: Yes. And it has been said that the reason that Bassanio chooses the lead casket is as a reproach to Shylock, to show that things—lead—are not so valuable as love. But he’s marrying Portia for her money, though he’s convinced himself he’s in love with her. One of my favorite lines is when Portia says, “How much do you owe him?” and he says, 3000 ducats. Well, 3000 ducats is $750,000, and she says, “Is that all?” [laughs] My goodness me, this girl is rich!

Cynthia Fuchs is director of Film & Media Studies and Associate Professor of English, Film & Video Studies, African and African American Studies, Sport & American Culture, and Women and Gender Studies at George Mason University.


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