The Merchant of Venice
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Jonathan Munby
Shakespeare’s Globe, London
Saturday 25th April 2015, evening
Jonathan Pryce as Shylock
Phoebe Pryce as Jessica
Ben Lamb as Lorenzo
Stefan Adegbola as Lancelot Gobbo
Rachel Pickup as Portia
Dorothea Myer-Bennett as Nerissa
Daniel Lapaine as Bassanio
David Sturzaker as Gratiano
Dominic Mafham as Antonio
Brian Martin as Salarino
Rege-Jean Page as Solanio
Scott Karim as The Prince of Morocco
Christopher Logan as The Prince of Aragon
Michael Bertenshaw as The Duke of Venice / Tubal
Music composed by Julian Maxwell
Singer: Michael Henry
This is the second of this year’s trio of major Merchant of Venice productions, a trio which also has the RSC’s The Jew of Malta casting further light. It’s also the start of the 2015 Globe season, thus beating the RSC’s production to reviews by a few weeks.
The evening reinforced the Merchant of Venice‘s position among my favourite Shakespeare plays. It had everything that draws you to the Globe. No extraneous concept, Shakespearean costumes, music, huge stage, vitality. What I love about the play is that it has tragedy, drama, comedy, intrigue and romance all rolled into one theatrical piece, and yet it’s not “a problem play.” It was the third in our annual intensive London theatre week. The previous two plays were American Buffalo on Thursday (three stars is generous) and Ah, Wilderness! on Friday (two stars). A poor start, so it was a relief to get a genuine five star production as our third play on Saturday, and you do expect that level from a major Globe production. Jonathan Pryce (Shylock) was Cardinal Wolsely in Wolf Hall while Damian Lewis (American Buffalo) was Henry VIII in Wolf Hall. In this morning’s Daily Telegraph, Pryce said he had previously resisted performing at the Globe because he thought it a tourist / heritage situation. He has a point, we thought that way for years too, and you sometimes do feel that when the running Italian translation next to you gets too loud, but certainly not tonight, and we were delighted he changed his mind.
Incidentally, the Globe’s rain poncho are inscribed with the Merchant quote on the quality of mercy … it droppeth like the gentle rain from heaven. That was appropriate for the groundlings on this Saturday night. Rain it did, though softly, and the line got a major laugh. Do be in your seats at least five minutes before the start, as there’s a typical Globe pre-show with the cast and musicians dancing and moving, all disguised in black costumes.
The set with pre-show
The set had a “Granada 16th century style grill” over the rear and doors, and unusually gold gauzy curtains were drawn across the whole for Portia’s house in Belmont, though these were abandoned in the second half. On a breezy night, they billowed attractively. This was a “Merchant” Shakespeare’s shade would have recognized as his, and he would have liked the added few minutes at the end. After Bassanio and Portia, Gratiano and Nerissa and Lorenzo and Jessica have finally achieved a happy and romantic ending, Jessica breaks into a wailing Hebrew song and falls to the floor, then the doors open and a chanting religious procession brings out Shylock for forced baptism as a Christian. It’s in Latin, and he’s forced to say “Credo” (I believe) three times. All has not ended well for Shylock, and we pity him. Shylock and Jessica had a Hebrew interchange earlier too. A fascinating subtext, not mentioned in the programme, is that Jonathan Pryce (Shylock) and Phoebe Pryce (Jessica) are real life father and daughter too. And they’re not Jewish, another question that’s always asked of actors playing Shylock.
Jessica (Phoebe Pryce) and Shylock (Jonathan Pryce)
Bassanio and Gratiano work well together … Gratiano pukes into a bowl on his first drunken entrance. Bassanio pulls in our sympathy and works on likability. We hought him just a tad quieter than the rest of the cast early on, but either we got used to it, or projection increased. Whatever, Daniel Lapaine was a great Bassanio, with excellent body language and reactions too. The subtext … is Antonio more than a platonic pal … is emphasized in many productions. Not here. Antonio may have feelings for Bassanio beyond platonic friendship, but Bassanio returns no signals.
Jessica and Lancelot Gobbo (Stefan Adegbola)
A stand out scene is Lancelot Gobbo’s struggle over whether to leave Shylock’s service. He has to address “conscience” versus “the fiend.” Here he pulled up two unsuspecting audience members and made them act out “Conscience” and “Fiend.” It was a brilliant interactive idea.
The Prince of Morocco (Scott Karim)
The casket scenes can’t fail, but here we had a Moroccan accent for the Prince of Morocco, and a Spanish accent for the Prince of Aragon. I like it when accents have a purpose rather than being randomly what the actor feels natural with. The Prince of Morocco had a white Arab costume and vigorous business with a scimitar, and Scott Karim really had an Arab hue (as his lines say).
The Prince of Aragon (Christopher Logan)
The Prince of Aragon was so absolutely hilarious that he got huge applause on exit. This was played by Christopher Logan, one of our favourite actors ( On this blog he’s mentioned as Thisbe at the Globe, Bottom / Pyramus on the Headlong Tour and as Casca in Julius Caesar at The Globe). He also played a stern clerk of the court, and had a later one line role as a servant delivering a trunk. When Bassanio came to choose among the caskets, Portia gave him just the right amount of encouragement.
Portia (Rachel Pickup) and Bassanio (Daniel Lapaine)
The trial scene benefitted from glorious scarlet costumes wih court officials flanking the Duke of Venice ad with a bar lowered to tie Antonio too for the taking of the pound of flesh.
The Portia / Nerissa balance worked. Nerissa’s facial expression asides added throughout. We didn’t get an answer to our constant question on the play: had Portia pre-planned the ending of the Shylock / Antonio trial scene, or was it sudden inspiration? We didn’t know, though we would interpret the text as she pre-planned it. It’s enigmatic. Some productions go for the flash of inspiration, others for weaving a deliberate cunning web to draw Shylock in. I like being unsure.
Jessica (Phoebe Pryce) at the end as Shylock is led on for baptism
The rings argument was very funny at the end, with all four producing great background acting throughout the accusations and red herrings laid by Portia. Pryce’s Shylock eschewed Jewish accents (good!) and genuinely built up a reason for his resentment, or if you prefer “politicization.”With his enforced conversion, I felt it ended with our sympathy on Shylock. So often you go out arguing whether the play is anti-semitic or not. Here that didn’t even occur to us. It’s not.
What we really liked is that the play worked its magic on the basis of the text. Sure, there were innovative rhythms and weightings and business, but it did not rely on importing a concept. It was cut well … the final Jessica / Lorenzo scene is often cut, but here melded with the two pairs of lovers building a happy ending.
The standard for The Merchant of Venice is high in 2015. You have the high concept Almeida Las Vegas version contrasted with this “unadorned with concept” version. Both are five star productions.
Still the best programme in London. Good detailed and illuminating essays. Love the muted series design.
THE MERCHANT OF VENICE ON THIS BLOG”
The Merchant of Venice, Almeida Theatre, January 2015