'The Merchant of Venice': Theater Review

Manuel Harlan
Phoebe Pryce and Jonathan Pryce in 'The Merchant of Venice'
Sure, the acting skill and direction are as polished as one would expect, but this remains among the most problematic of the "problem plays"

Jonathan Pryce stars as moneylender Shylock in this latest production at Shakespeare's Globe on London's Bankside, directed by Jonathan Munby.

Although Shakespeare's Globe Theatre in London has branched out into producing new writing and classics by authors other than its name mascot, part of the whole gestalt of the institution is to explore "some of the original practices employed in Shakespeare's theater." That means, for the company's core business of putting on his plays, it's all about Elizabethan-style costumes, no fancy lighting or amplification, audiences standing in the pit, and so on, but with proper modern fire exits and upscale catering.

That noble commitment to moderated authenticity has resulted in some electrifying work, but it also creates a certain strain when it comes to staging one of the most problematic of Shakespeare's "problem plays," The Merchant of Venice. Directed by Jonathan Munby and starring eminent Shakespearean thespian Jonathan Pryce in the role of Shylock, the production is typically polished and fluently performed by the ensemble, but as an interpretation it's an exercise in cognitive dissonance. It strives, on one hand, to honor the romantic and comedic spirit of the text while also, on the other, attempting to undermine the play's baked-in anti-Semitism with extra-textual stage business (as have other productions, including a 2010 Broadway run with Al Pacino) that's very much not an "original practice."

There's nothing intrinsically wrong with that strategy, and Yahweh knows there have been countless interpretations of the play since the 19th century that are rigged to wring more sympathy for Shylock, ranging from producing it in Yiddish to using sets and costumes to evoke Fascist regimes of the 1930s. Some even argue that it's a play about anti-Semitism rather than an anti-Semitic play as such, which is generous at best. self-deluding and ahistorical at worst.

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The bottom line is that getting the tone right with Merchant is a tricky balancing act to pull off for a company whose mission statement is effectively all about sanctifying "the Bard." In practice, that means showing Venetian revelers spitting on Jews in the streets in the opening dumbshow one minute, and then asking us — with populist expectations that the audience should engage with the proceedings like any other drama — to feel some sympathy for the titular merchant Antonio (Dominic Mafham) when he faces losing his pound of flesh.

Are we meant to cheer on heroine Portia (Rachel Pickup) when she bests Shylock in court, a scene in which she consistently calls him "Jew" rather than his name (spoken by her only once in the scene), as if constantly reminding the assembly and audience that his ethnicity is more relevant than his humanity? Should we celebrate when the Christian characters are all coupled off in the end, albeit with an indulgent chuckle over how Bassanio (Daniel Lapaine) and Gratiano (David Sturzaker) get caught out for having given away their wedding rings? Meanwhile, in a climax that immediately follows all that ending well for the characters in Belmont, Shylock is forced to convert, a scene staged with genuine creepiness, as his daughter Jessica (played by Pryce's own offspring, Phoebe Pryce), makes a complete volte-face that's certainly not in the original text, wailing despairingly in Hebrew stage left. (Her strong, piercing voice, by the way, proves she's her father's daughter.)

For viewers untroubled by the queasy contradictions on display, there's much to recommend about this otherwise energetic, word-perfect and thoughtful production. Pryce Sr. is, of course, in every way the star of the show. Here, he gives a performance rich in gravitas and grace that finds the dignity and pride in Shylock, especially in the crucial "Hath not a Jew eyes?" speech. But he doesn't shy away from employing recognizably "Semitic" gestures and line deliveries that brush up against caricature. In another extra-textual scene, he even argues with Jessica in Yiddish.

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His slight but deliberate broadness ties in with the exaggerated cultural stereotypes employed elsewhere, particularly for Scott Karim's tres sheik Prince of Morocco and Christopher Logan's mincing Prince of Aragon. Both are heavily accented in the pantomime tradition, a note further struck by Stefan Adegbola in the clowning of Shylock's servant Launcelot, right down to coercing groundling viewers into being onstage participants.

The actors playing the aristocratic characters have in many ways the most thankless roles, compelled by the text to embody nobility and Christian virtue that looks absurd to modern eyes, especially since this production's commitment to Elizabethan dress (the hats, by the way, are fab) can't add any visual irony by costuming them as, say, Wall Street bankers or Nazis. As a result, they mostly play their parts straight, as if truly convinced of their own righteousness. At least there's a scene where Antonio leans in to kiss Bassanio, playfully evoking the homosocial subtext that's threaded throughout the play. More of that counter-reading might have been welcome.

In all honesty, there are few plays by Shakespeare where the ostensible main characters are quite so boring as these, apart from the articulate Portia, imbued here by Pickup with pep and spiky intelligence.

Cast: Jonathan Pryce, Rachel Pickup, Daniel Lapaine, Stefan Adegbola, Michael Bertenshaw, Philip Cox, Scott Karim, Ben Lamb, Christopher Logan, Dominic Mafham, Brian Martin, Dorothea Myer-Bennett, Rege-Jean Page, Phoebe Pryce, David Sturzaker
Director: Jonathan Munby
Playwright: William Shakespeare
Set & costume designer: Mike Britton
Music: Jules Maxwell
Choreographer: Lucy Hind
Fight director: Kate Waters
Presented by Shakespeare's Globe Theatre

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