DVD RE-RUN INTERVIEW: Probing a Psychological Battle, Michael Radford on “The Merchant of Venice”
by Liza Bear
Liza Bear spoke with Michael Radford about “The Merchant of Venice”; the film will be released on DVD this week (May 10th, 2005).]
Shakespeare knew how to get bums on seats, says British director Michael Radford, [“1984,” “Il Postino”]. It looks like his livewire, rip-roaring adaptation of William Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice,” set in 16th century Venice, with Al Pacino in top form as a restrained Shylock, will do that too. Adding a historical prologue about conditions in the Jewish Geto and blasting off with an opening shocker at the Rialto Bridge to demonstrate the hostility between the religious groups, by judicious trimming Radford is able to clarify the characters’ key relationships and personal agendas — without foregoing the poetic magic of the original text. As the story goes, seafaring Catholic adventurer Antonio (Jeremy Irons) borrows 3000 ducats from Jewish moneylender Shylock, using his ships as collateral. The loan is to enable his profligate friend Bassanio (Joseph Fiennes) to travel some distance to Belmont to try his hand at wooing an heiress, Portia (Lynn Collins). Pure gamble. The contract states non-repayment within 3 months will entitle Shylock to extract a pound of flesh from Antonio near the heart.
Whether or not the contract will be honored literally is the crux of the action and Radford ably feeds all other plot lines into it. The play’s tone is tricky, with its lightning shifts from romantic comedy to tragedy, but Radford makes Shakespeare’s portrayal of flawed humanity his main dramatic focus, anchoring Shylock’s desire for revenge in his repeated humiliation and aggravated by the loss of his 19 yr old daughter Jessica (Zuleikha Robinson), who has run off with a Gentile. How do the ruling Christians treat their slaves, Shakespeare asks, so are they merciful or hypocrites? The film whips up edge-of-the seat suspense at trial with Shylock whetting his knife blade as Antonio is strapped down and gagged, expecting to die. Lynn Collins does a virtuoso turn as Portia disguised as a male legal scholar brilliantly arguing points of law. Liza Bear spoke with Michael Radford in New York recently.
indieWIRE: You know, there’s a Hebrew Free Loan Society in New York now.
Michael Radford: Free?
iW: Yes. No interest.
MR: How fascinating. Well, charging interest was against Jewish law in the 16th century as well. Jews making loans in the Geto didn’t charge interest to each other, only to Christians. As we stated in the prologue, to give the play political context, it was the Jews’ only way of making money-they weren’t allowed to own property. And whenever they left the Geto, they had to wear a red hat as a mark of identification… It was unpleasant to be marked out. But their lives in Venice were less problematic than those of Jews in Spain or Portugal. The Venetians welcomed the Jews. Venice was a fiercely trading nation, and the Jews brought knowledge of business and connections to the Ottoman Empire, which the Venetians really needed. So they protected the Jews against the Inquisition.
iW: What struck me most about your adaptation was how you built up the drama cinematically to a peak in the trial scene.
MR: Oh yes. Absolutely.
iW: With so many plot lines and characters, how did you sustain the momentum?
MR: Mainly by cinematizing and keeping things moving. Every time I felt the plot got bogged down in dialogue I would cut ruthlessly. I cut about an hour’s worth. If you understand what’s going on, then there’s no suspense. You can’t stop like in the theatre and have people constantly talking… Cinema is ruthless. If the drama stops, people get bored. But I haven’t cut a lot out of the trial. What I’ve used to keep the trial alive is the baying crowd around it. By cutting away to someone listening to the dialogue, you’re helping the suspense.
iW: What is your take on the concept of mercy which is very central in the play? Is it hypocrisy, or…?
MR: Well, I’m more interested in the psychological things in the play than the political or philosophical ones. So the fact that it’s a battle, some people say, between the Old Testament and the New, or between the law and the prophets and the law and mercy-I’m not really interested in that. I’m interested in the psychological battle that’s going on and the state of mind that Shylock’s in. The philosophy is academic to me.
iW: Are you saying that by addressing themes in the play we are guilty of historicism?
MR: I think so. If you can recognize the characters’ motives and the reasons that they do things — without putting them in a modern-day context– then the [story] will hold together. The rest you can deduce if you want. But there’s a danger of somehow making analysis history, which is the problem of historicism. And that’s not useful to me in putting the play on film.
iW: Do you expect the level of understanding here that you would get in Europe, or at least the UK?
MR: I tried to [make the audience] forget it’s Shakespeare. Just enjoy it. The language will not phase you for one second. Because you’ll be following those characters. Folks in the 16th century didn’t speak in iambic pentameters either. And in order to get bums on seats, as Shakespeare did on a regular basis, he had to entertain them. The flowery language is for the nobility. The story lines and the comedy were for the other guys who filled the theatre… Treat this as an alive text, without jazzing it up. Shakespeare’s great but he’s not perfect. There are lots of dramatic problems in the story.
MR: Like, for instance, the pound of flesh. At the beginning Shakespeare’s not really clear whether Shylock intends to get his pound of flesh or not. There’s a scene I cut-“How like a fawning publican he looks/I hate him for he is a Christian/If I can feed the ancient grudge which I bear him…”
iW: Now why did you cut that?
MR: People think I cut it because it was anti-semitic, but that’s not why. I cut it because it’s not dramatic. If Shylock’s so blatant about his intentions at that particular moment, the game’s up. One of the great ironies [about the pound of flesh] is that initially it’s a joke. A bitter joke. How could Shylock possibly know that Antonio’s ships are going to go down? He couldn’t.
iW: So you in fact sharpened the drama.
iW: I hadn’t remembered the dialogue being so legal, such crystalline exchanges at trial. Which Lynn Collins as Portia handled brilliantly. Were you surprised that a North American actress would do this so well?
MR: No. Actors love Shakespeare. They train on it because it’s the most difficult to do and really sorts out your technique. What does surprise me is that they’re still training great Shakespearean actresses in the US, because most of the work is now in the movies where you don’t need that kind of skill… Another change I made to the text was to pop in modern words where I could without disrupting the flow…
iW: Such as?
MR: When Antonio says in the court, “You may as well stand upon the beach/And bid the main flood lower its usual height,” the actual line is “‘bate its usual height.”
iW: Oh. As in “abate.”
MR: I mean, why use that when you can use the word “lower”?
iW: Well, presumably Shakespeare thought it sounded better! Did you work with a Shakespearean scholar?
MR: No. I did it on my own. I’m not a Bard-idolator. What’s so seductive about Shakespeare is the more you do it, the better it gets. So if you grip the audience the first time they see it, the chance is they’ll go and see it again, and this time they’ll listen to the language.
iW: As a director, was this the most challenging production you’re undertaken?
MR: It was the most brutally difficult, not because of “The Merchant of Venice” itself, but because period films are extremely difficult to make in Europe. I probably had $5 million less than I needed. If it had been a studio movie I would have had twice or three times the amount. It’s brutally difficult making films on the run with seven and a half weeks’ shooting. It’s the extras that take the time. The court scenes were 8 days shooting with 120 extras every day. You’ve got to get them dressed and made up and get them acting. They love being directed, they love responding and watching Al Pacino work.