Placing Shakespeare's controversial "The Merchant of Venice" in a new time period gives it prophetic historic significance. 

Timely Shakespeare

Let's not waste any time discussing the merits of the script for "The Merchant of Venice." Shakespeare doesn't need any kudos from the likes of me.

Instead, let's talk about who should watch this masterpiece of theater to be broadcast as the season debut of "Masterpiece Theatre" on PBS.

You should make it a point to watch "The Merchant of Venice" if, a) you ever took a Shakespeare course in college, b) you like the soaring grace of the English language as it was spoken in the late 16th century, c) you love theater, or d) you've been making any comparisons lately between the pre-World War II era and recent times.

Points a), b) and c) you can figure out for yourself. But point d) may need some explanation.

"The Merchant of Venice" is, of course, a play about prejudice against Jews. Some call it Shakespeare's most controversial play. Others have even labeled it racist. Because the play is so pointed in some of its diatribes against Jews, it's rarely been performed lately. That's the problem that vexed Trevor Nunn when he decided to mount a production for the Royal National Theatre: The shadow of the Holocaust is still too much with us.

So, in a fit of genius, he decided to stage the play as though it concerned events between the two World Wars, a time when anti-Semitic thought and behavior were becoming voguish to a ghastly extent.

With a few minor adaptations to the script, "The Merchant of Venice" becomes a contemporary story that sends shivers down the spine. Instead of shrinking from the Holocaust, it foretells it.

And although Nunn's "Masterpiece Theatre" production was completed long before September 11, 2001, it takes on even more meaning as we see still more groups suffering under the burden of prejudice in America.

Nunn's production is brilliant, evocative and redolent with meaning for today's audience. And his cast, featuring David Bamber as Antonio, Alexander Hanson as Bassanio, Derbhle Crotty as Portia and Henry Goodman as Shylock, is masterful. Goodman and Bamber, especially, cut smoothly through the fog that Shakespeare's words of 400 years ago can summon — not an easy task even for a Shakespeare specialist — to fill the language with consequence for 2001.

With costumes and sets reminiscent of "Cabaret," limned completely in sepias, grays and blacks with an occasional jarring blue for emphasis, the production pits Jew against Christian in sharp contrast. Nunn also reminds his audience of "Cabaret" by deftly pointing up the possibility of a homosexual aspect to Antonio's character, which Bamber pulls off with adroit assurance.

There are moments when the four-century shift in setting for the play can evoke a warp-speed neck snap. But when Goodman launches into Shylock's timeless "I am a Jew" speech, all distinctions between the 1590s and the 21st century fall by the wayside. "If you prick us, do we not bleed?" is a question as pertinent now as it ever was.

Nunn's adaptation of "The Merchant of Venice" is a robust and soul-thrilling gift to lovers of language and to those who appreciate penetrating storytelling. It reminds us what the "masterpiece" in "Masterpiece Theatre" is all


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