Brighton Fringe 2017
As I left the Rialto Theatre after watching ‘Gratiano’ I couldn’t help thinking of the similarities to ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead’. Tom Stoppard’s play takes two minor characters from ‘Hamlet’ and lets us see Shakespeare’s great work through their eyes. While we watch them on the stage in front of us, the main developments at Elsinore are taking place offstage. They are almost two halves of one person – Rosencrantz takes things very much at face value while Guildenstern worries much more about the deeper meaning, and about the consequences of his actions.
Ross Ericson has done much the same in ‘Gratiano’. He’s taken a secondary character from ‘The Merchant of Venice’ and put him centre stage. It’s Sunday morning, and Gratiano’s been pulled out of his bed by the Venice police, and taken in for questioning about the murder of Bassanio. As he rambles on and on at the police station – Gratiano’s not the sort of man who can keep silent for even a minute – he gives us a twentieth century retelling of Shakespeare’s play.
There’s more. This is Venice in the nineteen fifties, and the echoes of Italian Fascism still reverberate. Gratiano had been a member of Mussolini’s Blackshirts, and he’s got memories of marching with ‘the legionaries of the New Roman Empire’, arm outstretched in a Fascist salute, chanting “Hail, Duce! Hail, Duce!”. He’s not the only one, by any means; he taunts his police interrogator with reference to his past – “All that stuff that went before, rather leave it lie, eh?. Leave the past alone”.
But the other side of Gratiano’s personality remembers the anti-semitism of Italian society, and the rounding up of the Jews for transport to extermination camps in the Holocaust. He’s trying to understand how prejudice and racial hatred develop, and how they corrode individuals and society. Gratiano may be a minor character, but in Ross Ericson’s hands he’s a complex individual.
Venice lives off tourism now, but in its heyday it was the throbbing centre of an Empire based on trade and backed up with military force where necessary. Just like London, warts and all. Wharves and warehouses, commerce and courtesans, dungeons and the Doge. Gratiano’s no aristocrat, of course, so he speaks to us in a very working-class, East End English. We see him morose in a bar, clutching a beer as he remembers the comradeship of the old days, waving the bottle to emphasise some point. Then he crosses the stage to sit on a high police station stool under a single hanging light and he’s over familiar with his questioners (who we never hear) – very much the wide-boy Cockney as he tries to deflect suspicion for Bassanio’s murder.
He’s contemptuous of his old fellow Blackshirt – “we hardly move in the same social circles” – as someone who moved out of his class by marrying a rich heiress – “He married Portia fifteen to twenty years ago, before the war”. But to get the funds to woo Portia, Bassanio had to persuade his merchant friend Antonio to borrow money from Shylock, the Jewish moneylender. Ericson goes deeper than Shakespeare, suggesting that Antonio was gay, providing Bassanio with a means to pressure or blackmail him into helping. Bassanio seems to have been a nasty piece of work – “The bastard didn’t even invite Antonio to the wedding!” and later he managed to get Antonio exiled from Venice. At the time of his murder Bassanio had been a politician, running for the Italian Senate as a Christian Democrat. “As a Christian Democrat! – Mussolini must be spinning in his grave”
Though he puts it in a different historical setting, Ericson keeps Shakespeare’s play intact, with the trial scene over Antonio’s ‘pound of flesh’ almost drowned out by Gratiano and his mates chanting, baying for Shylock’s blood – “It was no longer a court of law, it was a bear-pit”. Shylock’s daughter Jessica eloped with another of Gratiano’s friends, Lorenzo, and he tells us gleefully of “the great love story, a Blackshirt running off with a Jewess”
Jewishness is at the heart of both plays. ‘The Merchant of Venice’ is often condemned for its anti-Semitism, while apologists cite Shylock’s great speech – “If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh?” – as being one of literature’s most powerful arguments against racism. In this version Gratiano seems to have been affected by the suffering he saw inflicted on Jewish people during the war, and by the way many of his fellow Blackshirts, Bassanio included, found themselves safe positions far from the fighting.
He hates the way that so many Fascist politicians were able to emerge unscathed after the war- “crawling out from under a rock after the storm” – and continue their careers in Italian public life. And not just in Italy, of course… He rails against voters who have little knowledge of the world and very short memories of politics. Voters who can so easily be infected by prejudice and swayed towards hatred and fear of ‘Them’, of ‘The Others’ – people who have a different skin colour, or religion, or culture.
“That’s how we ended up with Benito”
“That’s how the Germans ended up with Adolf”
So this play is a passionate cry against racism and xenophobia in every country, in every century; it speaks to us very clearly today. Don’t for a moment imagine, though, that this is a worthy lecture on morality – Ross Ericson has created a living, breathing human being in Gratiano. A complex character, as I said above; one of the minority of people who has been able reflect on his experiences and change his opinions. He’s obviously very much a vehicle for the political message his author wants to get across to us, but I believed in him as a man.
Ericson occasionally delivers lines a little fast for easy hearing, but their meaning is always clear from his very expressive facial expressions and hand movements. His body is never still – constantly leaning towards the audience to emphasise some point, or raising his palms towards us to distance himself from some allegation. He’s a joy to watch.