- The Merchant of Venice
Edward Hall's 2009 production of The Merchant of Venice, staged in London and Brooklyn by the all-male Propeller Company, contracted the international economy of Shakespeare's Venice into the grungy, brutal, and unruly underground of a mid-century men's prison. In the world created by Hall's production, all power relations were organized by the controlling dynamics of money and violence, which emerged as two sides of the same coin. Stripped of the idealizing romantic framework that characterizes traditional stagings of the play, Propeller's Merchant exposed an austere economy of goods and bodies—an economy of the bribe, the seduction, and the shiv. Steven Mentz's review of the play in Shakespeare Bulletin Winter 2009 described the prison as merely "an aggressive visual gambit" and an unsuccessful metaphor for the confines of an all-male company. I propose, rather, that the setting was central to the production's argument about the principles that organize social space in Shakespeare's bleakest comedy. It is not merely Venice that's a prison, Propeller suggested, but the systems of commodification that order human relations in a broader commercial world.
The production's exploration of the darker aspects of Merchant was consistent with the Propeller Company's body of work, which has included [End Page 510] stagings of A Midsummer Night's Dream (2003), The Winter's Tale (2005), Twelfth Night (2006-7), and The Taming of the Shrew (2006-7). As Ben Brantley of The New York Times has put it, "the Propeller Company specializes in knuckle-duster Shakespeare that digs for the harshness beneath the lyricism" (March 20, 2007). Director Edward Hall uses the all-male cast as a mechanism for drawing attention to the often violent, brutish energies that animate Shakespearean comedy. In contrast to Mark Rylance's 2002 all-male Twelfth Night at the Globe, for example, which used its cast to approximate original Elizabethan stage practice and to emphasize the layered performance of gender, Propeller's minimal drag—its "muscular, brash and tough" productions—highlight what Hall has called "an overarching theme" of Shakespearean drama—that "Shakespeare's women are treated as commodities" (quoted in Ted Merwin, The Jewish Week, May 11, 2009). Situating the play in a men's prison highlighted the fungibility of femininity in masculine constructions of status by creating a world in which all of the characters were not merely played by males but were male characters. By the same token, the fact that all bodies and characters were male meant that men were essentially commodifying one another. Here, all relations—not merely those that hinged on the sale of men to function socially as women—were polluted by the imperatives of economic exchange.
The main set for the production was a two-story structure of prison bars and gates with an open space at center stage where the main action took place. At different times, this space became the prison yard, cafeteria, chapel, and various other laboring or loitering locales. The set also included two smaller, wheeled cages that flanked either side of the main structure and were moved through the gates and onto the main stage to indicate individual prisoners' cells. The pre-show business featured grey-clad prisoners seated and stooped behind the bars and hovering above on the second floor while a guard (who later turned out to be Launcelot Gobbo) paced in front. This tableau was reproduced several times throughout the performance, constructing a...