The Merchant of Venice is generally classified as a comedy, but the Shakespeare’s Globe production emphasizes the darker aspects of the play. Shylock the Jewish moneylender, brilliantly portrayed by Jonathan Pryce (Game of Thrones, Wolf Hall), stands upon the stage as a sympathetic and tragic figure by the end of the evening. It’s a pity that the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts featured only five special performances in Washington, DC.
Director Jonathan Munby weaves together the acting and music in a way that immerses viewers in the merriment and excesses of the Venetian setting. A masque sequence is added at the beginning with dancing, drums, and shouting wonderfully choreographed by Lucy Hind. The actors moved about in the aisles to greet us, even going so far as touching the shoulders of theatergoers hurriedly taking their seats. The opening scene also displays the outsider status of passerby Shylock when these Christian revelers cease the music and attack him. Munby confronts us with persecution and thus directs our sympathy toward Shylock from the start.
Shylock is subject to manhandling and insults by Antonio (Dominic Mafham), the titular character who borrows 3,000 ducats. Interestingly, the worst taunt is when Antonio intentionally drops Shylock’s pocket-sized book of Hebrew texts. It’s a small yet moving moment, as Pryce stoops wearily to pick up the book and reverently brushes off the dust. It seems difficult to believe that Antonio is as good a man as his friend Bassanio (Dan Fredenburgh) and others say, given the scorn and distrust that he exhibits toward Shylock.
The borrowed funds go to Antonio’s friend, Bassanio (Dan Fredenburgh), who pursues the hand of fair Portia (Rachel Pickup). These scenes of Portia’s courting are hilarious. The Prince of Morocco (Giles Terera) struts around while swinging a scimitar. Later, the Prince of Arragon (Christopher Logan) leaves the stage in the middle of a speech, reappearing through another door to finish it.
After Jonathan Pryce, there are two standout performances worth noting. The surprising one is that of Stefan Adegbola as the servant Launcelot Gobbo. Adegbola breaks the fourth wall and pulls two unsuspecting audience members onto the stage to personify Launcelot’s “conscience” and “the fiend.” The evening that I attended the play, he came straight for a theater critic two seats in front of me. “I’ve always said critics were frustrated actors,” Adegbola joked. He brings a refreshing energy and poise that makes his character one of the most memorable of the evening. I hope we’ll see a lot more of him.
Wordplay is an important aspect in the oeuvre of Shakespeare. It’s difficult to resist an urge to invent our own wordplay here when it comes to Jonathan Pryce. My brother playfully scribbled “Twice the Pryce, twice as nice” on my notepad at the Kennedy Center. It ties in perfectly with my discussion of the other standout performance.
Phoebe Pryce, Jonathan Pryce’s real-life daughter, beautifully captures Jessica’s conflicting feelings about her father Shylock. As a Jew, Jessica is regarded as an outsider, even though she runs away with the handsome Christian, Lorenzo (Andy Apollo). Phoebe and Jonathan Pryce balance so well against each other to create very weighty moments. They argue vehemently in Yiddish in an added scene. In another exchange, the father shakes his head and attempts to soften his harsh tone when he sees his daughter in tears. The closing moments of the play, another new scene, are quite eerie as Phoebe Pryce sings a Jewish hymn while the other actors sing the Credo.
Because Antonio fails to raise the funds to pay Shylock on the loan, he is subject to the strange penalty of giving up “a pound of flesh.” The judgement sequence is both humorous and chilling as Shylock methodically sets out a weighing scale and various sharp implements for the extraction. Minutes later, he visibly deflates and is horrified when Portia finds a loophole in the contract and leaves him at the mercy of the state.
Shylock’s intent on vengeance can be regarded as a result of the persecution he received in Venice through the years. He’s even considered to be an “alien” by his fellow men. By opening and closing the play with Shylock’s pain, the production turns the moneylender into a victim and a tragic individual. Munby’s version of The Merchant of Venice focuses on hypocrisy and being an outsider, themes that will jump out at audiences today.
See the Shakespeare’s Globe website for the performance dates coming up in Chicago, London, China, and Venice.