Sweet Portia

Singapore is a Venetian place: a maritime republic, a trading entrepôt, straddling cultures like a salesman, gateway to the Occident, wielding languages like a nimble lumberjack, protective of its citizens, happy with a respectable facade, tolerating most people so long as they have capital, importing labourers rather less indulgently, multi-racial, sometimes racist, mostly clean and rich in a region mostly otherwise. Above all, it is mercantile. La Republica Pristina.

Singapore isn’t like the Old Venice we visit today, the gorgeous Victorian Disneyland kept afloat for art and tourists. It’s like Young Venice of perhaps the year 1000, the Paduan colony, a trading post perched tenuously in a lagoon to keep Dark Age cavalry at bay, one starting to make a serious go of it, with its conscripted navy and an early grip on eastern Mediterranean trade with Byzantium.

The Singapore Repertory Theatre seize the chance offered by this parallel with Bruce Guthrie’s production of Merchant of Venice. Some Shakespearean plays look hard and get clearer with familiarity, but Merchant for me looked very legible on first encounter, and has got steadily less clear since. Jason Schneiderman captures the ambivalence of its relationships in his elegant The Sadness of Antonio.

The cast is good across the board, but three actors dominate. Daniel Jenkins brings something of last year’s Iago to his Antonio; gentle with his friends but always sneering and insulting to Shylock, even before his life is forfeit. Remesh Panicker’s Shylock has tremendous calm presence, with the production effortlessly substituting Indian chettiar tropes for Jewish moneylender ones, without changing the text. You can imagine his years of practicing his reserve as a survival skill. This means he keeps our sympathy as much as possible, while he faces his posh boy tormentors in court, who made a deal they couldn’t stick to while colluding to allow his daughter to elope. And Julie Wee’s Portia pins her end of the triangle, her lawyer’s brain sharpened on years of study while restrained by her dead father’s will. She explains the quality of mercy … even if it’s a greatest hit, it’s still a beautiful speech … before kicking Shylock as hard as she can while he’s down. You wonder if it’s her revenge on her father, her well-cultivated rage, or just self-righteous racism. This production leaves in her racial jab at her suitor, the Prince of Morocoo:

A gentle riddance. Draw the curtains, go.
Let all of his complexion choose me so.

This comment, too, comes after the Prince has lost, in his case at a riddle. Unlike Shylock, we never see Portia at a loss, only at a disadvantage. Even the failure of her new trophy husband is used to put him in his place, and teach him a lesson. She never loses, and the mask never slips.

Every major relationship in the Merchant of Venice, and many a minor one, comes with a contract, and every contract comes with a sting. John Kerrigan notes that Marx was encouraged by Shakespeare to see money as a bond that separates, particularly in Timon of Athens. We imbue objects with a symbolic weight and then behave as if the object is magical. Portia’s wedding ring is such a tool, not only with her husband Bassanio, but with his so close friend, Antonio, who ends up swearing his Bassanio will be faithful; a peculiar oath.

Those last few scenes, about the ring – they can be a dizzy little comedic spiral after the horror movie of the court case, if you want, cheeky cross dressing and lovers’ tiffs. Guthrie doesn’t let us get away so easily. Jessica’s stolen dowry is another bond that separates. The quarrel between Krissy Jesudason’s Jessica and Johnson Chong’s petulant Lorenzo has more pain in it, and more regret. Jessica is given the last moment of the play, and she spends it weeping. It’s a shock, this interpretation, but it fits. In sooth, we know why she is so sad, but do her new pretty rich friends?

Some theatrical traditions emphasize the contrast between mystical Belmont and cutthroat commercial Venice, but this production doesn’t really see the need. Everything glitters. In Singapore, Belmont is a condo in Holland V.

Mass Gentrification

You can sit in a building in West Coast Park in Singapore and get a reasonably clear view of America.

On one side, you can find a drive-thru fast food vendor with a full carpark, selling fries and burgers. On the other, you see a cafe nestled in the trees of one of the largest and nicest parks in the city.

Both are branches of an American multinational. The cafe food and coffee is tasty enough for a franchise; it’s easy to get worse food at more expense. The burgers are fresh.

Look right: Red state. Look left: Blue state. HBO / Fox. New York / Dallas. Thesis / antithesis.

Now, not only are these two eateries under the same roof, but they’re actually the same company – McDonald’s, and its McCafe offspring. (How it achieved a pocket monopoly with no neighbouring hawker centre is another question.)

When McDonald’s was founded, people mostly got paid to exercise. There were more blue collar, manual jobs. Cheap meat, from the first wave of agricultural mass production, was a welcome boon. Now we get paid to sit still at an office, and incomes have increased to a point where, in a rich or middle income country, it is easy to be poor and fat. It’s so easy it’s rather undesirable and déclassé – hence the backlash against fast food brands in recent years. Books and films like Fast Food Nation are as much passive economic data points as active shifters of public opinion. The threat of regulation shouldn’t be discounted, but is itself only made possible by a cultural shift.

So the popular palette has shifted, and a corporation that likes profit has shifted to match it. This hasn’t just happened on the cafe side, either. They have, for instance, healthier Happy Meals – same insidious toy hook, apple pieces instead of fries. Premium options are always good for businesses like McDonald’s with large rent and labour costs relative to the cost of their food. In the past this is why upsizing was useful. Now that leaves us terrified of being giant tubs of heart-seizuring lard, you have options like the Mighty Angus Burger, which is a more expensive cut of meat. “It’s a little bit fancy,” the Australian ad campaign runs.

Posh things have got cheaper and are more widely consumed. So cheap you can buy them at McDonald’s. This is now widespread. It’s almost the entire business model of Starbucks and Gucci. This was not so clearly the case during our journey from the Industrial Revolution. Things were often cheap and standard but not as nice as the craftware they replaced – at least what little you could afford. (Social poshness is a relative good and as scarce as ever.) 

This is not an original observation, though the scale of it is, mayhaps, not appreciated enough. Marx, Schumpeter, or any economic historian could tell you about it. I asked an economist for the short technical name for it, and he replied “capitalism”.

Amusing as that is, capitalism drove price drops and standardization as much as it drove the current push to quality. I prefer the term mass gentrification. The process of luxurious unattainables becoming commodities.

For all the recent chatter of capitalism being destroyed by its own contradictions, I’m not quite sold. It has a history of transcending them.

“Are you having the thesis or the antithesis?” I asked, as my wife returned to the table at one tentacle of global McCapitalism. “The synthesis,” she said. “And it’s good.”