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Merchant of Venice, The (1974)

Courtesy of ITV Global Entertainment Ltd

Main image of Merchant of Venice, The (1974)
ATV for ITV, tx. 10/2/1974, colour, 127 mins
Directed byJohn Sichel
Stage directorJonathan Miller
Production CompaniesATV, National Theatre
ProducerCecil Clarke
DesignerPeter Roden
MusicCarl Davis

Cast: Laurence Olivier (Shylock); Joan Plowright (Portia); Jeremy Brett (Bassanio); Michael Jayston (Gratiano); Anthony Nicholls (Antonio); Anna Carteret (Nerissa); Louise Purnell (Jessica)

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Venetian merchant Antonio borrows from Jewish moneylender Shylock, but finds that the latter's terms are less than favourable when he runs into difficulties.

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Widely regarded as the most convincing screen adaptation of The Merchant of Venice to date, this ATV production was sourced from Jonathan Miller's acclaimed 1970 National Theatre staging.

Aside from its artistic merit, it's also a valuable historical record, preserving Laurence Olivier's farewell to stage Shakespeare (though he would record King Lear for Granada Television in 1983). While his Shylock is somewhat broad for the small screen, it provides a tantalising glimpse of how it might have come across in the theatre. Apparently at Miller's insistence, Olivier plays down the character's overtly Jewish characteristics (certainly compared with his notorious cantor in the 1980 remake of The Jazz Singer), even to the point of having Shylock conceal his skull cap under a top hat whenever he goes about his public business.

As that detail implies, Miller has updated the action to the late 19th century, a time when Jewish bankers were hugely influential in central Europe, but before the overt anti-semitism of the Nazi era: here, it's much subtler but just as destructive. While most productions contrast Antonio (good) and Shylock (bad), here, they are almost indistinguishable in dress, speech and behaviour: it's only Shylock's ethnic origin that sets him apart from the rest of society. Tellingly, Miller cuts the line "I hate him for he is a Christian", underlining his view of Shylock as misunderstood victim. Olivier's animal howl of despair as the trial ends is so unnerving that even his harshest critics are visibly shaken.

Joan Plowright is a splendidly imperious Portia, slightly older than many, but this has the effect of stressing the length of time she's had to wait for a husband. The second claimant to her hand, Arragon (Charles Kay) is portrayed as a doddering, borderline senile old man, which adds extra resonance both to his embittered realisation that he's looking at "the portrait of a blinking idiot" and of the risks Portia has to take in fulfilling her father's legacy. She's so aware of this that she deliberately prods Bassanio (Jeremy Brett) in the right direction, with the help of a gloriously over-the-top vocal duet.

The other key musical moment is quieter but more potent: in the final sequence, Shylock's estranged daughter Jessica (who has already seemed oddly distant throughout the final scenes of reconciliation) is left alone to read the Kaddish, the Hebrew prayer for the dead, while it is sung on the soundtrack.

Michael Brooke

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Video Clips
1. Portia's second suitor (1:44)
2. Shylock's lament (4:11)
3. Shylock's downfall (6:01)
Brett, Jeremy (1933-1995)
Davis, Carl (1936-)
Miller, Jonathan (1934)
Olivier, Laurence (1907-1989)
Plowright, Dame Joan (1929-)
Laurence Olivier and Shakespeare
Shakespeare on ITV
Shakespeare on Television
The Merchant of Venice On Screen