Thursday, February 02, 2006

Shakespeare Incites

(On watching the Al Pacino, Shylock)
I don't know the script as well as I should, so, when I bought the new(ish) film, and saved it to watch on my birthday, I was quite excited.
Well, the morning after I am not exactly disappointed, but there is a strange sense of something missing - unsatisfied, as after one of those Chineese Takeways.
Let's start with the Acting. Pacino gave a very worthy performance - obviously he had gone 'into' the character, and he was quite believable. Strong method acting in fact: Old Mr Irons, in contrast, seemed to have a certain distance from the character - and was, to mind mind, much more effective.
Why the paradox?
Shakespeare didn't write films, didn't know about 'the method' and isn't writing real human beings (this last point is important). Modern films are frequently focused on very 'truthful' (i.e. psychological truth) performances which dig deep into character and motivation.
Shylock isn't meant to be a real human being - he is meant to be a 'type' - he is deliberately over the top in places, and only sketched in in others. Very much like a portrait by Rembrandt.
Does this mean the play can't be filmed? Certainly not. The film was not bad and there have been some very good films of Shakespeare (usually when the director accepts the total change of media and produces a film instead of trying to do the play).
And it is worth remembering, Shakepeare frequently shifted his plots from one media, the printed word, into another, the theatre.
It is also possible to make film records of stage performances (which are worth watching, even when simply filmed). But these I don't classify as 'film'.
When you film there is a strong shift in point of view. Things which are easy to ignore, or are superficial, or just plain unimportant on stage, attain a significance on film.
Does it matter the play is set in Venice? Not really: Shakespeare is writing about his own society: London, Urban, International, English, 16th century.
On film, Venice becomes one of the characters. And the writer/director needed to give a sense of place visually: For Shakespeare's audience, it was very much a conceptual image.
There is a lot of business in the film - getting in and out of boats, breasts, crowds, spitting, camera movements. On the stage, with a very limited number of cast, next to no scenery and boys (young men) playing females, there is a tremendous sense of unreality and simplicity.
Which brings me to Shylock and his Jewishness.
Shylock isn't a jew. Shylock is a creation from the pen of an author who created a character to represent something - what?
From the film I got a sense of two very important things - Shylock is meant to represent something in every human being (the famous and frequently not grasped with both hands, Do I not bleed? speech). This is important and goes some way to explain why the character is important and why the play should still be performed, despite the undoubted anti-semitic elements in it.
The second element for me is that Shylock is a puritan! He is a religious zealot who is taking the Old Testiment view, an eye for an eye: Modern day evangelists and the Bible as literal truth; The extreme Islamists; Political extremists. I am certain Shakespeare's audience would have recognised this straight away. Perhaps he would even have been costumed in a way that suggested the puritan Malvolio (and could the same actor have played him?).
And what was the essential difference between a Jew and a Christian to Shakespeare and his contemporaries?
Here I think it can be reduced to the Old and the New Testaments. The Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount. Strict Law vs Love.
This is a fight not only between Christians and Jews, but within the Christian community and the Christian him/herself.
I am certain the play could be given an interpretation where Shylock as everyman would work - and certainly the use of an actor like Al Pacino brought home something of this.
Emmm.... Time for a cup of tea I think.

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