It is not often in the theatre that you will find one of Shakespeare’s most unsympathetic characters being given heart and soul but this is indeed true of Jonathan Price’s magnetic performance as Shylock in Jonathan Munby’s inspired production of The Merchant of Venice at Shakespeare’s Globe, London.
Venice, epicentre of consumption, speculation and debt, Bassanio borrows money from his friend, the merchant Antonio, to finance his attempt to win the hand of wealthy heiress Portia in marriage. Antonio, in turn, takes out a loan from the money lender Shylock. If the money cannot be repaid by an appointed time, Antonio will give Shylock a pound of his own flesh.
This is considered the most problematic of Shakespeare’s problem plays and Munby’s absorbing production in no way tries to smooth the sharp edges of the play’s always vexatious anti Semitism but rather holds it up as a sobering example of intolerance. The fact that such views were prevalent in Elizabethan England makes it no less disturbing for us today, when there has been a marked rise in anti Semitism.
The competing claims of tolerance and intolerance, religious law and civil society and justice and mercy which are explored here are well conveyed in a production that gains immeasurably from being set in period. Dunby also adds a disquieting coda in which Shylock undergoes a forced Catholic baptism, while his tormented daughter Jessica sings a distraught Hebrew prayer.
The comedy is always slightly uneasy, reminding us that this is a world from which Shylock, the persecuted money lender tried so desperately to shield Jessica – all in vain for she betrayed her father and renounced her faith for the lover of Lorenzo.
The focus of the production is undoubtedly on Jonathan Pryce’s grizzled moneylender Shylock, shoulders stopped under a lifetime of abuse. He delivers the “Hath not a Jew eyes?” speech with piercing intensity, while wiping Gentile spit from his face and clothes, his voice quivering with humiliation and rage. And in the trial scene, he doesn’t refrain from showing his pleasure at the prospect of bloody vengeance, arranging his scales to weigh out the pound of flesh with eager relish, only to turn to devastating disbelief at the grossly unjust verdict and sentencing.
Good support comes from Rachel Pickup as a headstrong Portia, Price’s real-life daughter Phoebe as Jessica, Dorothea Myer-Bennett as Nerissa, the spirited maid to Portia, Dominic Mafham as a closeted Antonio, Daniel Lapaine as Bassanio who takes his patron’s money but spurns his shyly proffered kiss and Stefan Adegbola as Shylock’s loathsome servant Lancelot Gobbo, who does a decent job of raising laughs with the help of a pair of audience volunteers.
An impressive production, then, that remains in the mind long after the final curtain calls.
The Merchant of Venice
Runs at Shakespeare’s Globe until Saturday 7 June 2015
Box office: 020 7401 9919Last modified: June 9, 2021