One might say that Nicolas Stemann doesn’t so much stage The Merchant of Venice as interrogate the play – or the very possibility of staging it now. That would only capture part of what this production is up to, but it’s an important part – and the part that would be most unusual in an English-speaking context. Visually, we’re obviously not in Shakespeare’s Venice here: we’re on a set, a set that can at times look a modern office and at others like a dancefloor, but mostly looks like what it is: a stage. And lest we forget that we’re dealing with a text steeped in performance history, visual and aural reminders are built into the evening: images of past productions, most recognizably Al Pacino’s cinematic take on Shylock, appear on TV screens, and at one point Fritz Kortner’s iconic recording of Shylock’s “Hath not a Jew eyes” speech is heard.

That all that history is not about how to play, say, Bassanio and Antonio’s relationship, but what to do with Shylock is, of course, the point: what makes the play so challenging now is not its comedic marriage plot, but the Shylock-Antonio plot – the part that Stemann identifies as “tragic” in a long and illuminating interview printed in the program. Historically, I’m not sure I quite agree with that account: it’s not too much of a stretch to read the conversion narrative as a theological comedy, and the convert’s unhappiness is hardly more of a complication for that generic identification than the problematic marriages that end most of Shakespeare’s comedies. Reading the play as a combination of Shylock’s (and Antonio’s) tragedy and Bassanio’s comedy, however, is probably the only approach that still allows us to stage it now. Stemann’s fundamental interpretation may not be “true to Shakespeare” (as if that mattered), but it’s certainly in keeping with what the play has become over the past century and a half.

If Shylock is a challenge to any production of Merchant of Venice, it’s obviously a particular challenge in Germany – let alone in Munich, the “capital” of Hitler’s “movement.” In post-war Germany, what to do with this play and its ostensible villain is impossible to disentangle from questions of national guilt and of identity politics. Kortner is a prime case in point: one of the Weimar Republic’s most celebrated actors, he had to flee from the Nazis, but returned after the war to become one of the new Federal Republic’s most formative directors – and the Jewish voice that made Shylock actable again. A decade later, Peter Zadek (who grew up as the son of Jewish German emigrants in the UK) staged multiple versions of the play with increasingly “evil” Shylocks – most notably, a production in Bochum notorious at the time for a Shylock fully informed by the anti-Semitic propaganda films of the Nazis. Doubling down on an anti-Semitic reading of the play, Zadek argued, was precisely what was politically necessary in 1970s Germany.[1]

Stemann’s production only obliquely concerns itself with anti-Semitism as such: it takes the case of the Jewish outsider as a paradigm of enforced identity and exclusionary mechanisms. And it doesn’t take the play’s identity politics as simply a political problem. Rather, it confronts them as a theatrical challenge: how to perform identities “we” no longer believe in. To tackle that challenge, Stemann draws on the central device in his artistic arsenal as a director – an approach to the text that has made him almost uniquely adept at staging Elfriede Jelinek’s plays but that he first developed in productions of classics, including a 2001 Hamlet (and perhaps most famously, his 2008 Robbers). Instead of thinking through plays as structured primarily by the relationship between characters, he approaches them as verbal textures – and his stagings frequently amount to actors exploring those textures, playing with and within them, and only sometimes from the perspective of a role or a character.

Consequently, Stemann calls his Merchant of Venice a “concert of words,” a “Wortkonzert:” six actors are jointly responsible for the entire text, often with shifting character assignments, with entire passages spoken chorally, with the same line repeated by multiple speakers. He likens the text to a musical score, and the actors’ task to a joint musical performance, or realization, or playing (the German term he uses, “musizieren,” encompasses all three – it’s what a group of musicians does together: “make music”).

It’s a theatre that is not really grounded in the (re)presentation of “roles” or “characters”: the performer speaking the words never disappears into the singular fictional figure the text creates for him or her; the words are never quite allowed to transform the actor’s body into a character’s, but remain audible, and interpretable, as words, statements, claims, ideas just as the performer’s body remains this side of the fiction, an actor moving on stage, speaking someone else’s text. And lest we forget, Katrin Nottrodt’s set includes a number of large flat screens used to display the script: the actors, at times, read the text as it appears on the monitors, and we can read along. And even when they ostensibly speak without this visual aide-memoire, or when the screens disappear into the fly, or show images rather than text, the actors may still be reading: there is a large screen at the back of the auditorium on which the play text scrolls along.

But Stemann’s actors are not performing a staged reading. For one thing, they frequently depart from what is on those screens, riffing on and altering the text on the fly the way German actors are much more prone to do than Anglophone performers. And even when they follow the displayed words faithfully, the actor still wins out over the text: Niels Bormann at one point tethers his speech so closely to what is on the screen that he reads a typo (“ch” for “ich”) – the effect isn’t just funny (though it is), it also highlights that a) the text is not to be trusted; b) the decision to follow the text is the actor’s; c) what happens in the theatre happens by virtue of what an actor does to and with a text, and how that doing is received by an audience. It bears stressing just how joyous a theatrical experience this all is. The show may be driven by an analytical rather than a narrative impulse, but it is wonderfully, virtuosically committed to the performance principle it investigates.

That said, there are moments in the show when the actors disappear altogether; when the text, unvoiced, lacking an actor other than the screen, is merely shown, pointedly unvoiced. Towards the end of Act 4, Shylock’s words remain unspoken. They appear on screen, but no one takes charge of giving them voice. And his final words remain on display throughout Act 5, a memento and a stark contrast with the silliness of the goings-on in Belmont. It’s a kind of eloquent silence, but as a theatrical effect, it depends on the relative powerlessness of the written word on stage: Shylock’s reduction to a mere textual effect is an index of his defeat. (I’ll come back to this.)

Nor is it quite true (as virtually all reviews of the show claim) that the performers don’t take on roles at all. That is how the evening begins: Thomas Schmauser playing both Bassanio and Antonio, Julia Riedler both Portia and Nerissa, Bormann both Antonio and Shylock. But as the show goes on, a clearer division of labour emerges: while all lines, in principle, remain available as text to be spoken jointly, or redistributed, more often than not, Schmauser becomes Bassanio; Riedler becomes Portia; Jelena Kuljic becomes Nerissa; Walter Hess becomes Antonio (although he’s Shylock for much of Act 4); Bormann becomes Graziano; and Hassan Akkouch becomes – or rather, is coerced into becoming, Jessica. In a way, this clear identification of actor and character is a moment of violence, or at least of enforcement, in the show: a clarity that, when enforced, is associated with the play’s tragic drift; when chosen, or deliberately abandoned, is a feature of its turn to comedy. (Which makes Jessica, interestingly, a tragic figure. I’ll come back to that as well.)

In Belmont (Photo: David Balzer)

In Belmont (Photo: David Balzer)

There is a complex choreography at work in Stemann’s show, but not one that’s easy to decode or even describe. Take the early scenes. Schmauser plays with the screens, he frequently turns to them to read the text, sometimes he seems to dry and use the monitors as prompters. I have no idea how much of that is real, but he certainly doesn’t allow us to forget that he is reproducing words that are also available by other means than an actor’s voice. When Riedler does Portia and Nerissa in the next scene, on the other hand, the screens show a distorted image of Portia’s father’s (that is, Walter Hess’s) face; Riedler, standing facing us right at the edge of the stage, seems to voice both characters without overt reference to the text. She gives them clearer vocal and physical identities, too, than Schmauser did. Stemann and his cast are obviously playing with us, and with the theatre itself: their staging implicitly asks what it is we expect actors to do. And over the course of the show, that doing takes many different forms. But on first watching the evening, that’s all I can say: that it puts different relationships between text and performance, between performance and embodiment, between fiction and reality into play. I can’t really figure out in detail the underlying argument is, although it’s evident that the difference between the theatrical situations the show creates matter: an actor playing two characters talking to each other while highlighting for us that he is reading their dialogue from a screen is not the same as an actor performing the same situation without ostensibly referring to the play text (as in Riedler’s performance). But what is that difference? And what is being emphasized in that contrast?

One thing is clear: it’s not a simply distinction between, say, realism and anti-naturalism. In its own way, Schmauser’s performance is more naturalistic than Riedler’s: he’s playing an actor acting. And there are moments very early on in the show that strike a similar note: when the performers look at each other after reading the first bunch of lines, as if to ask “oh, is this what you’re doing? OK, I’ll do that too then.” As soon as they step on stage, none of these actors are simply “themselves”: they are always already playing a role. And that, too, carries through the entire evening – as when Bormann is told off for letting his Shylock improv (involving a swastika armband, an SS hat, and a set of vampire teeth) go on for too long, raising the question whether is it improvised at all; or when Schmauser, playing all three of Portia’s suitors, has to ask the audience for 3000 ducats every time one of those scenes rolls along, and protests at having to do it again – that’s obviously not the actor, privately, protesting, but a stage-Schmauser played by the actor.[2] Riedler’s Portia and Nerissa, on the other hand, initially fall within the fairly broad spectrum of what a reasonably straight performance of a character might look like on a German stage – and thus is a more theatrical moment than Schmauser’s performance precisely because she doesn’t give us a (naturalistic) portrayal of “Julia Riedler” playing (a theatricalized) Portia. In other words, sometimes Stemann has his actors play in a realist vein, but what they’re playing isn’t the Shakespearean character; the deconstruction of the role into a textual artifact depends on the construction of the role of the actor. And sometimes, he lets his actors jump directly into a (Shakespearean) role without ostensibly interposing that version of themselves. Now, I’m fairly certain that there is a method to when he does what, and to when he blends the two modes – but I can’t really say what that method is. For that, I’d have to see the show again, probably more than once. Is that a good thing? I don’t know. I suppose it’s better for a production to demand repeat viewing than to be stultifying obvious.

Let me backtrack a little. As I said a while ago, the theme of roles and identities and how they are acquired or imposed is a central focus of this show – and of its reading of Merchant of Venice. Hassan Akkouch gets to act out that process most explicitly: when he first appears on stage, he speaks in Arabic. I have no idea what he said. He seemed to be something of an outsider from the rest of the cast, not quite in on the game, a commentator in a language I couldn’t understand. But then the show needs a Jessica, and it finds it in Akkouch – who is transformed not only into a woman but also, and somehow more significantly, into a speaker of German. Jelena Kuljic, herself accented, notably Eastern European, and vocally, as a Jazz singer, the most free and expansive of all the performers, gives him an extended language lesson, coaching him to say “ich” (again!) right, using the correct “ch” sound (not too hard, not too guttural). But Akkouch, or his actor character, never quite fits the part: critics have described his Jessica as a Conchita Wurst lookalike, but that strikes me as too superficial an analysis by half. Yes, he’s a bearded man wearing a long wig. But that’s where the similarities end. Wurst happily undercuts binary gender identifications; Akkouch’s Jessica never arrives where she is evidently meant to go, physically or verbally. Instead, he repeatedly finds his most expressive medium in dance. And at the top of Act 5, where Shakespeare’s play gives us the deeply fraught exchange between Jessica and Lorenzo, Stemann gives us Akkouch, dancing, increasingly frenetically, and ultimately collapsing upstage (where he will remain for the rest of the show). It’s never quite spelled out, of course, but the mismatch between the actor’s and the character’s body and voice here clearly mirrors the mismatch between Jessica and her new mate(s), the multiple impossible allegiances she tries to negotiate throughout the play. That conflict is physicalized in Akkouch’s performance, but it is foregrounded not primarily as a problem for the character, but for the actor (or his alter ego).

It is this back-and-forth that seems most remarkable to me about Stemann’s approach (and most impressively relies on his actors’ sheer virtuosic command of their craft): it’s never entirely clear what he is being meta about, the play, its characters, or the theatre itself. The (merely?) metatheatrical easily and quickly turns into a reflection or a commentary on a character, or the plot of the play, or its dramaturgy. The show doesn’t exist without its text, its performers, or its fictional characters, but all three of those elements are in play at the same time, and can comment on and activate one another fluently, seamlessly, endlessly. Whathappens to “Hath not a Jew eyes” illustrates this fluidity: it’s a speech by a Jew, about Christian Venice, sure. But as soon as it is that in this show, it becomes something else as well: it’s a speech about a Muslim, when Akkouch claims it. It’s a speech about a Roma person, when Kuljic claims it. It’s a speech about gay men, when Bormann claims it. (Although, unless I misheard, Bormann said “I am gay, AND Jewish. When you prick me, do I not bleed?”) It’s a speech about women, when Riedler claims it. And they all claim it, in turn, and than as a choral performance. No “minority,” no aggrieved or disadvantaged group that the speech could not apply to, it seems – until Schmauser perks up with an All-Lives-Matter-style intervention to claim the speech for white heterosexual men, which is clearly a bridge too far.

But what happens to the “Jew” if all his lines are, in principle, available for appropriation? He disappears. At first, it seems otherwise: in Act 4, Shylock’s moment of apparent triumph, Werner Hess sets up a music stand in the very centre of the stage; from there, he speaks Shylock’s lines (but also Graziano’s!). Behind him, lined up against the back wall, the rest of the cast speak all the other lines chorally, while key words of the play and the scene scroll over them, in a projection that fills the height of the proscenium: “Knife,” “Blood,” “Dog,” Justice” (“Gerechtigkeit” – a word the length of which in German really registers here!). It’s the most formal, most sharply choreographed sequence of the evening, a striking contrast to the anarchic post-wedding mayhem of Belmont. All is grey and black. The choral speech has the feel of a ritual, a call-and-response pattern, and there are no screens to drive a wedge between voices and text.

The Trial (Photo: David Balzer)

The Trial (Photo: David Balzer)

For a while, Shylock seems to be in charge if this new, somber direction; and he does it without any of the screens of text to help him. But then Portia steps forward, all the way downstage. And with that move, Shylock disappears as an individual. When Portia tries to distinguish merchant from Jew, when both are told to “step forth,” the entire cast step forward.

And from that point on, all six performers move as one. When Portia delivers her speech about mercy, the tone shifts to hopefulness (quite literally: it’s underscored by a joyful piano tune). Everyone cuddles up to her, not quite a group hug, but a group lean.

The Mercy Speech (Photo: David Balzer)

The Mercy Speech (Photo: David Balzer)

And when Shylock refuses her logic, the entire chorus speaks for him. The tune becomes melancholy. The cast as a whole moves upstage. As further key words scroll (“Law,” “Punishment,” “Guilt”), everyone retreats to the back wall, speaking the dialogue up to the attempt to cut Antonio’s flesh; and once there, they all raise a knife, and all plunge it, and all fall, and all tumble forward, slowly. And as they roll, the biggest of the flat screens descends. “Tarry a little,” it says. And there it hangs. Until Riedler gets up, and begins to read, slowly, haltingly. She reads it all, except for Shylock’s lines. Those appear, in screen, unvoiced. Whenever a new character speaks, an actor gets up to say the lines, until only Hess is left: and he becomes Antonio.

The "Resolution" (Photo: David Balzer)

The “Resolution” (Photo: David Balzer)

There is no Shylock left. The text rescues six characters, and condemns one to silence: if Riedler/Portia’s seems perplexed by her discovery of the comedic resolution to the tragic plot, it is a happy surprise – she gets to live. As do Graziano, and the Duke, and Bassanio, and Antonio. Shylock on the other hand, is reduced to a mere textual effect, a performed silence (or at best a mumble: they all mutter his lines in response to the loss of his possessions). His last line, though, “I pray you, give me leave to go from hence; / I am not well” will hang over the rest of the play, the tragic residuum that will not go away – even though the comic plot works hard to repurpose it: Bassanio speaks the words when trying to weasel out of Portia’s interrogation about the lost ring.

Shylock is merely text at this point, if a persistent, irremovable text. But a text cannot be converted. It’s a curious side-effect of this production that the most vicious moment of enforced identity is almost erased, displaced, to a large extent, onto Jessica and Akkouch’s performance of the role. Instead, identification as such becomes not so much an act of violence as an act of complacency. Contrasted with Shylock’s persistent text and the figure of Hess’s Antonio, who, in response to the absurdly good news of his rescued ships slumps into a heap downstage, the game of rings and its lame resolution, the superficial jollity of lewd puns and punch-drunk giggles, seems at best delusional: if in Stemann’s Belmont, identities are clear and roles easily assignable (everyone is someone here), they are also lies.[3] Who, after all, does Bassanio think he is? When Schmauser receives the ring from Riedler’s Portia earlier, it’s perfectly obvious who’s in charge: he’s gaumless, limp, almost caught by surprise by the success of his amorous quest – whatever he may be, he’s certainly not Portia’s “lord.” In Stemann’s dramaturgical universe, there’s no need for actors to put on disguises, so of course Riedler doesn’t pretend to be a young man in the trial scene – but really, she doesn’t change at all. The Portia in charge at Belmont before Bassanio wins her is the Portia in charge after he identifies the correct casket, is the Portia in charge during the trial, is the Portia in charge at Belmont in Act 5. But if that seems like a stable identity, the show doesn’t quite leave it at that either: by the end, Riedler’s Portia has become one of the gaggle of revelers marching off upstage. The comedic resolution has a part for her, but it’s not the one she played for most of the evening.

Stemann’s dramaturgy always worries away at the idea that playing a character is what acting means; he always mines the tension between verbal texture and dramatic role. But here, that directorial focus finds a deep thematic resonance with a reading of The Merchant of Venice as a play about the terrors and illusions of identification. In that sense, if Stemann’s production plays with the relationship between tragic and comic impulses in the text, we might think of “tragedy” as what happens when someone is forced to play a role that conflicts with his or her perceived identity; and “comedy” as what happens when someone is allowed, if only for a while, to pretend that his or her perceived identity is who they really are, or that identity is something we get to pick and choose freely. And if that’s more or less right, it follows that Stemann’s theatre, like life, can never be either tragic or comic: it’s necessarily always a bit of both.


[1] This is a really reductive short-hand account, obviously, and an embarrassment in light of the rich literature on German Merchant of Venice productions. Zeno Ackermann and Sabine Schülting’s excellent 2011 collection of essays is a good start if you want to know more.

[2] It’s a curious reading of the play, this: Stemann assumes that each of Portia’s suitors has to hand over a down payment of 3000 ducats. Things are rather less clear in Shakespeare – in fact, it’s not at all obvious why Bassanio has to pretend to be wealthy at all. Given the production’s interest in the difference between playing with identities and having identities forced upon oneself, this would have seemed like a potentially interesting aspect of the play: is Bassanio forced to pretend to be rich enough to afford a 3000 ducat fee, or does he take pleasure in pretending to be richer than he is (forcing Antonio, in essence, to bankroll an extravagant playacting stunt without any real purpose)?

[3] Though Belmont is also, not paradoxically, the place where playing with identity is easiest: it’s where the screens show footage of the actors in drag, it’s the place where all the partying happens, it’s the place where people put on costumes. Portia, while always irreducibly Portia, still wears at least three different outfits there. But that freedom of play is ultimately the same thing as an uncomplicated belief in a stable identity: both depend on a kind of freedom of choice. Venice is not like that. And Bassanio, the Venetian, isn’t either: in Belmont, Schmauser plays him as permanently exhausted, barely hanging on. He seems like he’s always hung over, not quite up to whatever is expected of him, and not really into it either.

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