On Sunday, 24 July, Diana, my usual theater companion, and I took in our second of three Lincoln Center Festival shows this summer, the evening performance of the Shakespeare’s Globe mounting of The Merchant of Venice. (The first was Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme from C.I.C.T./Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord, the report on which was posted on 28 July, and the third was 1927’s Golem, on which I’ll be reporting in about a week-and-a-half.) The attraction for this production—we’d both seen Merchant nine years ago at Theatre for a New Audience with F. Murray Abraham in the lead (see my archival report, posted on 28 February 2011)—was its star, Jonathan Pryce, the Welsh actor who made his Globe début as Shylock in this staging. (Diana and I had also seen Pryce perform before, as Davies in Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2012. My report on that performance was posted on 14 May 2012.)
This production of Merchant, directed by Jonathan Munby, was at the Globe 23 April-7 June before going out on tour. It’s first stop was in Liverpool (9-16 July) before traveling to New York City from 20 to 24 July in the Rose Theater in Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Frederick P. Rose Hall (in the Time Warner Center on Columbus Circle). From here, the production makes two more stops in the U.S.: the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. (27-30 July), and Chicago (9-14 August). Merchant will play five gigs in China after that: Guangzhou (Canton; 2-4 September), Hong Kong (7-11 September), Beijing (15-18 September), Shanghai (22-25 September), and Nanjing (28 September). The show returns to home base at London’s Globe (4-15 October) before playing in its namesake city, Venice, from 19 to 21 October.
Shakespeare’s Globe, founded by the American actor and director Sam Wanamaker (1919-93), is dedicated to exploring Shakespeare’s work and the playhouses for which he wrote. In 1970, Wanamaker established the Shakespeare Globe Trust to research, plan, and ultimately build an accurate reconstruction of the original 17th-century Globe Theatre in which Shakespeare’s company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men (later, the King’s Men), performed. The trust’s work proceeded based on academic research and “best-guess” conjecture, creating plans drawing on the scant record of Elizabethan theater construction from the few records of other contemporaneous theaters near the putative site of the Globe on the south bank of the Thames. Then luck struck. In 1989, the foundations of the Rose, a theater much like what the Globe was believed to look like, were uncovered at a site near where the Globe was felt to have stood. That same year, a portion of the Globe’s own foundations were unearthed, giving Wanamaker’s trust much actual information in which to base their conclusions about the appearance, size, and construction of Shakespeare’s main theater. Eventually, the rest of the Globe’s foundations, on which had been built not only the 1614 later building, rebuilt after a fire the year before and then torn down by the Puritans in 1642, but the original 1599 theater Shakespeare and his company built, were uncovered.
The reconstruction of the new Globe began in 1993, the year Sam Wanamaker was made an Honorary Commander of the British Empire in September and died at age 74 in December. Only partially completed, Shakespeare’s Globe opened for a “workshop” season in 1995 and then a “prologue” season in ’96. The theater, as close to a replica of the original Elizabethan theater as can reasonably be created given our knowledge of Shakespeare’s 17th-century building and modern safety regulations, began regular performances in 1997, débuting with an all-male production of Henry V starring Mark Rylance, the new company’s first artistic director. Aside from its public performances, the theater offers workshops, lectures, and staged readings, as well as an exhibition and guided tour of the Globe Theatre.
Shakespeare’s Globe presents plays, principally between May and the first week of October because the stage and seats are the only areas of the theater that are covered (the yard, or pit, where the “groundlings” stand, is open to the elements), ranging from productions employing some of the original practices of Shakespeare’s era to premières of new plays. Every play in the Shakespearean canon has now been performed at the Globe. In addition to the Elizabethan Globe Theatre, the company added the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, an indoor Jacobean theater (lit by candles!), in 2014 to offer a year-round program of plays, concerts, and special events.
The new Globe’s outreach programs include the 2012 Globe to Globe, the theater’s contribution to the London 2012 Festival and Cultural Olympiad. Globe to Globe presented every Shakespeare play, each in a different language. In 2014, the theater launched a worldwide tour of Hamlet, whose ambition was to perform in every nation on earth by April 2016; it played in 197 countries. Shakespeare’s Globe tours productions throughout the U.K., Europe, the United States, and Asia.
Along with educational outreach programs, the Globe films many of its productions and releases them to movie theaters as Globe on Screen productions and on video. In 2014, the company launched the Globe Player, which makes its back catalogue of productions available on line.
Lincoln Center Festival, which just completed its 21st season, presents performing arts programs from all around the globe. The festival has presented 1,422 performances of opera, music, dance, theater, and interdisciplinary forms by internationally acclaimed artists from more than 50 countries. LCF has commissioned 43 new works and offered 143 world, U.S., and New York premières. (A more detailed profile of the program is in my report on Ubu Roi, posted on 27 August 2015.) LCF uses many venues off the main Lincoln Center campus, including the Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College (where Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme and Golem played) as well as the Rose Theater. Built in 2004 as part of the Time Warner Center on Columbus Circle, a block south of the lower end of the performing arts center’s main site, the Frederick P. Rose Hall, of which the theater is a component, is the regular home of Jazz at Lincoln Center. A 1,094-seat concert hall, the Rose, coincidentally, shares its name with the Elizabethan theater near the original Globe that was excavated shortly before the foundations of Shakespeare’s home theater were discovered.
Shakespeare is believed to have composed Merchant between 1596 and 1598. (That’s the approximate era in which Jonathan Munby set the modern Globe’s revival.) It was almost certainly Shakespeare’s response to Christopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta, probably written in 1589 or 1590, which was very popular when it was first shown and revived many times between 1592 and 1594. The Jew of the title, Barabas, is portrayed as so detestable that his enemies boil him in a cauldron and this depiction influenced Shakespeare’s portrait of Shylock—and Shakespeare’s play was often nicknamed “The Jew of Venice,” affirming the connection. Elements of Shakespeare’s play are also present in Giovanni Fiorentino’s 14th-century tale Il Pecorone (The Simpleton), published in Milan in 1558 (the “pound of flesh” as surety for a loan, testing the three suitors, the rescue of the debtor by his friend’s wife disguised as a lawyer, the demand for the ring as payment); The Orator (Epitomes de cent histoires tragicques, 1581) by Alexandre Sylvain, published in translation in 1596 (parts of Shylock’s trial); and “Gesta Romanorum” (“Deeds of the Romans”), a Latin collection of tales probably compiled at the end of the 13th century, translated into English between 1510 and 1515 (the testing of the suitors with the three caskets). Oddly, The Merchant of Venice was catalogued as a comedy—which really only means it’s not a tragedy or a history.
It’s also considered one of Shakespeare’s most troublesome “problem plays,” not just because of the naked anti-Semitism in the text (and there are also strong redolences of misogyny, classism, and xenophobia as well), but because the juxtaposition of comedy and dark drama don’t mesh easily (making it an irresistible draw for modern directors). Time Out New York’s David Cote supplied a perceptive metaphor for Merchant’s composition:
It’s as if Louis CK and Ricky Gervais collaborated on a really dark satire about religious bigotry, full of characters corrupted by money and prejudice . . . then forgot to say that anti-Semitism is a bad thing. Worse: That if the state forces you to convert to its religion, that’s a happy ending.
The earliest record of a performance of The Merchant of Venice was in 1605 at the court of King James I, though it was undoubtedly premièred right after it was written, as would have been the custom in Shakespeare’s time. It’s been a popular script for the centuries since, but because of the problems inherent in the play it’s also been subjected to adaptation and bowdlerization. (Needless to say, it was a popular play in Germany during the Third Reich.) Many of the world’s most illustrious actors have played Shylock; one of the most astonishing perhaps being Jacob Adler (1855-1926), a star of New York’s Yiddish theater at the turn of the 20th century, who played the role first in a Yiddish theater production on New York’s Lower East Side (the Yiddish Rialto) and then on Broadway in a 1903 presentation in which he spoke Yiddish while the rest of the characters spoke English. In the past half century alone, actors with very recognizable names have assayed the role: Lawrence Olivier, Patrick Stewart, Antony Sher, and Al Pacino, to name but a few.
Until the early 19th century, Shylock was presented as a villain, an avaricious, cold-hearted monster, or a hideous clown. Edmund Kean (1787-1833), an influential star of the British stage, changed the perception of the character in his first appearance in the role in 1814. After Kean, all great actors—except the American star Edwin Booth—played Shylock with an air of dignity and sympathy. There have been many film versions of Merchant, starting in the silent era and including the 2004 Hollywood adaptation starring Al Pacino as Shylock (with Jeremy Irons as Antonio and Joseph Fiennes—the title role in the 1998 film Shakespeare in Love—as Bassanio), and several operatic adaptations.
There are Broadway records of dozens of productions starting a far back as 1768. Dustin Hoffman played the moneylender in a 1989 production directed by Sir Peter Hall (which had previously been seen in London) and Pacino played the part in a 2010 Joseph Papp Public Theater/New York Shakespeare Festival mounting staged by Daniel Sullivan that had begun the previous summer as Shakespeare in the Park at the Delacorte Theater. At an earlier Central Park production in 1962, George C. Scott portrayed Shylock. Off-Broadway productions have stretched from 1962 to the 2007 TFANA revival starring F. Murray Abraham that I saw. The TFANA production was restaged in New York City in 2011 at Pace University’s Michael Schimmel Center for the Arts in lower Manhattan after a successful tour to London.
The action of Jonathan Munby’s interpretation begins at a street carnival of musicians and revelers in Commedia dell’Arte costumes and masks (the Carnival of Venice?). (Music for the production is composed by Jules Maxwell and directed by Jeremy Avis.) Onlookers are dancing and capering until the mood darkens considerably several minutes after the merriment starts when Shylock (Jonathan Pryce) and another Jew, Tubal (Michael Hadley), pass by and are assaulted by three Venetians for no apparent reason and left beaten in the darkened street. (The production’s fight director is Kate Waters.)
Meanwhile, Bassanio (Dan Fredenburgh), who needs money to become the suitor to Portia (Rachel Pickup), a wealthy heiress of Belmont (a fictional region near Venice on the mainland), asks his friend Antonio (Dominic Mafham), a merchant of Venice, for a loan of 3,000 ducats, a very large sum. Antonio’s money’s tied up in shipments on the seas, so he approaches the moneylender Shylock, whom he makes no pretense about despising. Shylock agrees to lend Antonio the money on the condition that if the merchant doesn’t pay it back on time, Shylock may cut out a pound of Antonio’s flesh. Antonio agrees and Bassanio prepares to leave for Portia’s palazzo in Belmont, taking his friend Gratiano (Jolyon Coy) with him.
Launcelot Gobbo (Stefan Adegbola), Shylock’s servant, decides to leave Shylock’s service. He wrings some tortured comedy out of his rationale for his action by bringing a couple of (coerced) audience volunteers up on stage with him to enact his moral dilemma, one serving as his “fiend” and the other as his “conscience.” Lorenzo (Andy Apollo), Salarino (Brian Martin), and Gratiano plot to help Jessica (Phoebe Pryce), Shylock’s daughter, escape her father’s house so she can forswear her Jewish faith and elope with Lorenzo. While Shylock meets with Antonio, Jessica and Lorenzo flee with some of Shylock’s money and jewels. (In Jewish custom, a daughter who marries outside the faith becomes a non-person and her family behaves as if she never existed; a son who marries a gentile is considered to have died and is mourned with prayers for the dead.) Shylock is more distraught over the loss of his ducats than at his daughter’s betrayal of their heritage.
Portia’s late father decreed that she must marry the man who chooses from three “caskets” (small chests), one each of gold, silver, and lead, the one containing her portrait. But Portia’s displeased with her suitors. Fortunately for her, the Prince of Morocco (Giles Terera) and the Prince of Arragon (Christopher Logan), having been misled by the surface splendor of the gold and silver caskets, both choose the wrong ones. When Bassanio arrives, he chooses the right casket and Gratiano reveals that he’s fallen in love with Nerissa (Dorothea Myer-Bennett), Portia’s maid. Portia and Nerissa, now pledged to Bassanio and Gratiano, present their betrotheds rings as tokens of their love and make them swear never to part with them.
Back in Venice, Antonio’s and Bassanio’s two friends, Solanio (Raj Bajaj) and Salarino, hear that some of Antonio’s ships have been lost and Shylock vows to redeem his bond. Tubal also brings his friend Shylock word of Antonio’s losses and Jessica’s profligate spending in Genoa. (The Globe production broke here for intermission and upon returning, Munby staged the second of his inserted musical interludes, a celebratory revel at Portia’s house for the two newly-wedded couples.) Solanio arrives at Belmont with Lorenzo and Jessica, bringing news that Antonio, unable to repay his loan, has been arrested and that Shylock is demanding his bond. Shylock refuses to listen to Antonio’s pleas. Bassanio returns to Venice with money from Portia to repay the loan.
Disguised as a “learned judge” from Rome called “Balthasar” and his clerk, Portia and Nerissa travel to Venice to defend Antonio against Shylock, leaving Lorenzo and Jessica in charge of the house in Belmont. At the court, the Duke of Venice (Hadley) hears Shylock present his case and though he protests, he accepts the legality of Shylock’s claim.
Shylock rejects Bassanio’s offer of Portia’s money and demands his bond. “Balthasar” arrives and agrees that if Shylock refuses to be merciful, he must take his bond—but only if the pound of flesh alone is cut from Antonio’s breast without spilling a drop of blood. (Antonio has been bound to a beam with his arms outstretched, in the attitude of a crucifixion. This clearly places Shylock, the Jew, in the role of the Christ-killer.) Realizing this can’t be done, Shylock tries to leave, but because he’s attempted to take Antonio’s life, his goods are confiscated and his life is placed in Antonio’s hands. Antonio allows Shylock to live if he agrees to become a Christian and give his possessions to Lorenzo and Jessica as a dowry. Shylock submits abjectly and leaves.
As “a tribute” for their service, the disguised Portia and Nerissa each ask for the rings they’d given to Bassanio and Gratiano in their true identities. After strenuously refusing at first, the men reluctantly give up the rings. Portia and Nerissa then return to Belmont where Jessica and Lorenzo are waiting. When Bassanio and Gratiano arrive soon after, along with Antonio, the women trick their men into begging forgiveness for giving their rings away. The women then reveal their deception at the court. Antonio learns that his ships are safe. They all celebrate their good fortune and Shylock’s defeat with music, dancing, and drink.
Following this ending is an epilogue Munby added, Shylock’s forced baptismal ceremony in Latin and solemn pomp during which Jessica kneels down right and keens a Hebrew prayer (which may have been the Kaddish, the prayer of mourning, but I couldn’t hear her clearly enough over the musical accompaniment and the Latin mass) in a belated twinge of regret. At the end of the ceremony, Pryce descends from the stage into the auditorium, walks dejectedly to the nearest exit down near the stage at house right, and essentially slinks away
I was thinking during the intermission of Merchant that I don’t off hand know another Shakespeare play with so many “central” plots. There are three, which all unfold separately from one another (though they intersect at a couple of points) and each has about the same weight in the text. There’s the best-known plot, Shylock and Antonio, then there’s the Bassanio-Portia plot, and the Lorenzo-Jessica plot. It’s almost as if Shakespeare had these three stories, but none of them was long enough for a full play, so he stitched them together. Can anyone think of another Shakespeare play with so many main plotlines? Lots of the plays have subplots, but they’re not equally weighted.
The Globe production of Merchant was, like Bouffes du Nord’s Bourgeois Gentilhomme, long. (It seems to be a contagious disease: LCT’s Oslo, on which I reported on 13 August, was three hours—with two intermissions; Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme was 3¼ hours, and The Merchant of Venice was two hours and 55 minutes.) The most surprising thing to me was that Diana proclaimed the play “anti-Semitic.” I told her that wasn’t a revelation and how come she never noticed before—since we saw the TFANA production together in ’07. Diana didn’t remember, which is a problem she has.
Still, some critics see The Merchant of Venice as a play about anti-Semitism—in other words, Shakespeare’s criticism of the view and treatment of Jews in Renaissance England. That, however, strikes me as probably an interpretation that arose in the 19th century rather than a theme the Bard intended in the 16th. (This contrasts with Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s Nathan the Wise, which I reported back on 26 April was that writer’s response to the maltreatment of Jews in Enlightenment Germany and Europe. Of course, Lessing got himself in trouble for his view.) What this reading depends on, I think, is Shakespeare’s ability to create complex characters, including Shylock, with multiple psychological and emotional dimensions that can be interpreted and reinterpreted endlessly. Director Munby, however, seemed to have elected to portray his and Pryce’s Shylock as a deserving target of opprobrium.
Munby inserted several interludes, including two long-ish dialogue-less musical scenes, that helped attenuate the production, in my opinion. One was the street performance at the beginning of the performance, the music for which sounded to me like klezmer. (Later musical accompaniments, like the wedding party, didn’t sound like that, so I’m inclined to think the reference was intentional, not just to my ear.) Klezmer, first, is an Eastern European, Ashkenazi musical form, and, second, originated in the late 19th century. (This Merchant was set in the Renaissance. Only one reviewer, of the Chicago performances, made note of this anomaly: Hedy Weiss of the Sun-Times.)
The Jews of Italy, especially in the 16th and 17th centuries, were Sephardic (and a note in the program said that the few remaining Jews of Elizabethan England, about whom Shakespeare might have known, were largely from Spain and Portugal, refugees from the Inquisition, also Sephardim), so their music wouldn’t be remotely klezmer—even if it weren’t two to three centuries too early. Later in the play, Munby inserted a scene between Shylock and his daughter, Jessica—played, coincidentally, by Pryce’s daughter Phoebe—in which they argue in Yiddish. It’s more likely that Shylock and Jessica would speak Ladino, the language of the Sephardim, based on medieval Spanish rather than German.
(I have just learned that last January, the American Sephardi Federation presented a 90-minute, Sephardi style adaptation of The Merchant of Venice at the Center for Jewish History in the Flatiron District of Manhattan. The adaptation starred David Serero as Shylock and an additional cast of four singing Ladino songs. The 33-year-old Sephardi, a French-Moroccan actor and opera baritone who was born in Paris and lives in New York City, also directed the adaptation, which had its world première at the Center in June 2015.)
Pryce’s performance got a good review in the Times on 23 July, and it was deserved—he’s a two-time Tony winner for Miss Saigon (1991) and Comedians (1977)—but I still had some problems with the overall directorial concept. As Diana noted, Merchant is a pretty anti-Jewish play—Shylock in Shakespeare isn’t the “good Jew” of Something Rotten! (see my report on 14 May and another by Kirk Woodward on 11 May)—but he gets a measure of sympathy in the “Hath not a Jew eyes” speech (and even, to an extent, in the “It is in my humour” speech at the trial), but Munby may have trimmed the first speech (if not, Pryce went through it awfully fast) because I missed its impact. (To be sure, Rachel Pickup’s Portia also underplays her “quality of mercy” oration in the trial scene, so I gather director Munby chose to deemphasize the famous speeches.) Shylock’s Yiddish argument with Jessica helps establish, along with Mike Britton’s costuming, his status as an outsider and foreigner in Venetian society, and it also reinforces the impression, supported by the text, that Shylock isn’t such a loving father, but distant and controlling. This makes him even less sympathetic and helps justify Jessica’s betrayal and abandonment.
This production, as I suggested earlier, seemed to want to make Shylock a true villain. There was even applause from the audience when Antonio declares that Shylock must convert to Christianity in exchange for his life. Oddly, this all transpired even though, at the end of that opening street performance Munby added, Shylock and Tubal are beaten—showing that Shylock isn’t wrong to feel aggrieved by his treatment at the hands of Christians. Indeed, there’s no dearth of anti-Semitic violence from the good Christian souls of Venice, as Shylock’s spat upon and cursed by Antonio and his friends even as the Venetian merchant turns to the despised Jew for help. Still, the Globe production seemed to present Shylock as entirely deserving of his fate, particularly with Antonio assuming the image of the crucified Jesus at the Jew’s hands. At the end of the performance, Munby’s added conversion ceremony and Pryce’s exit seemed a manifestation of his view of Shylock.
Munby, aside from his interpolations (against which he also made some cuts and compressions), kept the three-hour production moving. The added sequences didn’t so much make the show longer as interrupt or delay the play’s action and attenuate some moments. Moreover, they didn’t seem organic, as if the production were changing gears every time they occurred. These scenes can all be justified on thematic grounds, but I didn’t feel the trade-off was worthwhile. The director’s work with the actor’s, however, was mostly excellent, though I had some reservations on this score as well. Some problems may have been intentional, such as the broad hints in Antonio and Bassanio’s relationship that suggested an unconsummated homoerotic attraction, made clear when Antonio moved in for a kiss after the trial and Bassanio rebuffs him—he’s a married man now, after all. Perhaps Munby felt the need to explain why Antonio puts himself on the line with Shylock for Bassanio and why Bassanio swears such allegiance to Antonio during and after the trial even over his new wife. In any case, it adds a dimension to the play that is barely relevant and, therefore, distracting. (The Guardian’s Emma Brockes remarked, “I wonder if there isn’t a way to make gay subtext slightly more subtextual.”)
Other misses were the noticeable lack of romantic chemistry between Jessica and Lorenzo, making the point, I assume, that Lorenzo and Christianity are just means of escape for Jessica from her father’s controlling grasp. There’s also less passion in Portia for her Bassanio once he’s chosen the correct casket; it’s as if, first, her wish for him to win the contest was more to avoid the buffoons who were Bassanio’s rivals than to have him for himself and, then, to be his “master” the way Portia’s father had been hers. The decision for Gobbo to enlist two spectators to make some comedy—in Washington, actor Stefan Adegbola selected a local reviewer as one of the two—may well have been a desperate choice to enliven a fraught bit that’s often a problem in this “problem” play. (One of Munby’s deletions is the character of Launcelot’s father, who’s even less funny than the son.)
As for the production’s look, Munby and his design team devised a sumptuous period look, with touches that evoked the wealth of 16th-century Venice and the exoticism of the inhabitants of its Jewish ghetto. Designer Mike Britton’s dark, wooden sets (supplemented by atmospheric—that is, shadowy—lighting by Oliver Fenwick in an auditorium where the house lights remained aglow) frame the action simply (reminiscent of an Elizabethan theater on which the modern Globe is modeled), while the ornate gold-capitaled columns remind us how prosperous and prominent the city was at the time. Britton’s rich costumes are reminiscent of Renaissance art, based on traditional garb, with several historical elements such as Shylock’s and Tubal’s red hats (kippot) and the small, yellow circle on the upper left breast of their tunics, symbols Jews were required to wear in Renaissance Venice when they left the ghetto, underscoring their status as “the other.” Venice’s position as a world crossroads is reflected, too, in the music (in Maxwell’s score and Avis’s direction) played by a band of minstrels (clarinet, cello, percussion, and voice) roaming the stage at various points in the production, which added to the theatrical richness of the production even though I felt it was dramatically unnecessary. (Other sound design was by Christopher Shutt and the dances were choreographed by Lucy Hind.)
The acting, as you might expect from a company like Shakespeare’s Globe, was top-notch. Standouts were Pryce’s Shylock, Phoebe Pryce’s Jessica, and Rachel Pickup’s Portia, with nice turns by Dorothea Myer-Bennett, Dan Fredenburgh, Dominic Mafham, and Andy Apollo. I didn’t always agree with their interpretations, but they were always executed with thorough commitment and care.
Pryce’s moneylender is consumed by anger and bitterness; he makes little of the sympathy-generating “Hath not a Jew eyes” speech, but spits out his deprecations of Bassanio (“I will not eat with you, drink with you, nor pray with you”), Antonio (“I hate him for he is a Christian!”), and Christian Venice in general (“I have a daughter; / Would any of the stock of Barabbas / Had been her husband rather than a Christian!”) with as much bile as they, in turn, expectorate actual spittle in his face. Any hint of a softer nature is snuffed out by the will for vengeance. In other hands, though, this would have made Shylock a caricature of the Christian-hating Jew, but Pryce’s skill and even, dare I say, gentle soul, makes his Shylock the product of years of mistreatment and abuse and centuries of prejudice and bigotry heaped upon his ancestors. It won’t make the moneylender loved, but it makes him understandable. As Shlyock’s daughter, Jessica, Pryce’s real-life daughter Phoebe is sublime: quietly determined, independent, and rebellious, this Jessica may not really love Lorenzo, but she’s firm about her decision to get out from under her stern father’s hyper-protective restraints. Phoebe Pryce’s look of anguish in Munby’s coda conveys Jessica’s ambivalence over her abandonment of her father and over his fate.
Rachel Pickup handles a multidimensional Portia smoothly, though this snobbish, entitled woman is less than entirely admirable. Passionate and witty as the society lady, she’s also racist (her distaste for the Spanish and Moroccan suitors is palpable and she shows disdain for Jessica, the former Jewess) and classist, not to mention dismissive of her husband as something resembling a plaything. However intelligent and resourceful Pickup’s Portia proves to be, her overkill of Shylock, which the New York Times’ Christopher Isherwood described as “almost sadistic,” and manipulation of Bassanio over the ring are cold and unlikeable acts. Yet the actress commits marvelously to it all and never falters in her credibility. As her maid Nerissa, Dorothea Myer-Bennett displays a devilish sense of humor, even as she echoes her mistress. Myer-Bennett has a light touch, even when she doesn’t speak, that leavens the role with a sense of fun.
Dan Fredenburgh and Andy Apollo as the husbands Bassanio and Lorenzo are both more ardent than their brides—and put others at considerable risk in pursuit of their desires. Fredenburgh and Apollo are stalwart and loyal—sometimes to their own detriment—and seem not to recognize that their beloveds don’t share their passion. (It makes me wonder what wedded bliss will be like a few years down the line. I once did a reading of a play that put Romeo and Juliet, who didn’t die at the end of Shakespeare’s play, in a middle-aged marriage watching their daughter fall into the pattern of young love that had so dramatically affected their lives as teenagers. It was a hoot, but the marriage was a sad affair.) If Merchant were a sitcom, Fredenburgh’s Bassanio and Apollo’s Lorenzo would be the straight men.
Dominic Mafham’s Antonio was a tough row to hoe, I’d imagine. Part steadfast hero and friend who puts himself in jeopardy for Bassanio and is prepared to pay his penalty even at the cost of his life, he’s also a rabid anti-Semite who doesn’t hesitate to spit in Shylock’s face even as he begs for a loan. Both Bassanio and Gratiano are more open and fun-loving than Mafham’s Antonio, who comes off as a little gray and stodgy when he’s not vituperating at the Jew. I found his hints of sexual attraction for his friend Bassanio dramatically un-called-for, as I said, but Mafham plays them sincerely.
Once again, Show-Score tallied reviews from performances outside New York City, so I recalculated its ratings to include only local notices. Of the seven New York reviews, Show-Score reported 71% positive notices, 29% negative, and no mixed reviews. The average rating of the New York press was 79. (My review round-up included 11 notices.)
Calling the Globe’s Merchant of Venice a “stylistically jarring production” in her “Bottom Line,” Linda Winer of Long Island’s Newsday described Pryce’s portrayal of Shylock as “complex” and “blazingly internalized,” and Munby’s production “handsome” and “modest” but “a mixed treasure.” Winer complained that it’s “obnoxious in its audience-participation clowning, routine in too many major parts,” but “harrowing in its violent juxtaposition of the merry Venetian gentiles and their unspeakably casual cruelty to the Jews.” Munby “underlines the anti-Semitic horror” of the play but “ignores . . . the play’s gender oppression” in a staging that “is not a speechifying production.” In am New York, Matt Windman, affirming that Pryce “gave a deeply felt performance as Shylock,” reported that “Jonathan Munby does evoke Renaissance Italy with rich costumes and period music” in “a striking production that emphasized the brutal violence, mockery and intolerance facing the moneylender Shylock.”
In the U.S. edition of the Guardian, Emma Brockes declared the Globe’s Merchant “the very best of what a traditional production can be, throwing light on the text but with enough new touches to preserve against boredom.” She continued, “It is also . . . a barometer for the anxieties of the times. Through subtle direction and inflection, the shading around Shylock, Antonio and even Portia is recalibrated to provoke or withhold sympathy in line with modern definitions of victimhood.” Decrying the faux-Elizabethan practice of players “leaping across the stage and running up and down the aisles inciting the audience to clap their hands,” Brockes suggested it might work better in the reconstructed period theater of the Globe, but at Lincoln Center, she complained that “it brought on a slightly frozen self-consciousness” to the audience (though the reviewer liked Launcelot Gobbo’s audience-participation bit better). Munby’s “staging, with minimal scenery and dim lighting, rendered the darkness of the times,” and Pryce’s Shylock, “stoop-shouldered and by turns cowering and full of a frothing bravado, rescued the role from being a ‘comment’ on race.”
In the Times, Isherwood labeled LCF’s Merchant a “brooding, powerful production” in which “[l]ight barely seems to penetrate the atmosphere,” as if the darkness were meant “to hide the iniquity so vividly on display.” Director Munby’s “lucid and strongly acted staging” made us “aware that while this Shakespearean play is classified as a comedy and is poised ambivalently between light and dark, it will generally be the baser aspects of humanity that prevail.” Pryce’s “eloquent, beautifully rendered Shylock” is “deeply moving,” the Timesman felt, as he “illuminates Shylock’s anguish so vividly, his face a contorted mask of spiritual suffering, that it all but erases any sense of contrasting light and dark in the play. We have reached the heart of the matter, and it is a place where mercy, love and what we commonly think of as simple humanity hold little sway.”
David Cote, after delivering a lengthy peroration on Merchant and its implications for audiences modern and Renaissance, characterized the Globe production in Time Out New York as “a stodgy, underwhelming affair” the staging of which “is unfussy and direct, but rarely exciting.” Pryce’s “Shylock [is] a generally passive, cerebral performance,” the man from TONY complained, “all in the voice and very little in the body,” adding, however: “Still, what a grand voice.” Cote also warned, “The visuals aren’t helped by a drab design, murky onstage lights and the decision to keep house lights on low.” He concluded, “Otherwise, it’s a standard, competent Merchant that evokes mixed feelings of happiness and horror, silliness and tragedy.” Variety’s Marilyn Stasio wrote, “Jonathan Pryce makes a strong case for Shylock’s infamous demand for a pound of flesh in Shakespeare’s Globe‘s gorgeously stylized production of ‘The Merchant of Venice,’” then went on to point out that “to pull off this tricky adjustment . . ., director Jonathan Munby had to flip the customary dynamic and turn Shylock’s Christian adversaries into heartless fiends.” Stasio added, though: “The stagecraft is so stunning, and the acting so dazzling, you might think the play had actually been written this way.” Pryce’s Shylock, declared the Variety reviewer, was “a towering performance,” as the actor “delivers Shakespeare’s immortal lines on the common humanity of all mankind . . . with deeply, honestly felt emotion.” Director Munby “assists in bringing out such unorthodox character nuances with copious bits of stage business.”
In the earliest of two Huffington Post reviews, “First Nighter” David Finkle asserted that Munby “has been ingenious while looking the how-to-handle-Shylock-and-his-oppressors puzzler directly in the face.” In addition to the textual references to Shylock’s abuse, Finkle noted, the director “makes certain that ticket buyers witness the persistent effrontery” so that the production “keeps the disdain for Jews prominent.” For the transfer to a conventional proscenium house, he’s also made efforts to compensate for “much of the Globe amenities” that are missing from theaters like Lincoln Center’s Rose, namely the daylight from the open roof and the open pit for the groundlings. All Munby’s work succeeds as well as it does, said the “First Nighter,” because “[h]e has a first-rate cast performing for him.” Jil Picariello, the second HP reviewer, pronounced Pryce’s “portrait of Shylock in the dark and powerful production of The Merchant of Venice . . . is brilliant and tragic.” She continued effusively, “He is a man of our time, a man of all time. His famous speech about the similarity of his sufferings to ours has never been more compelling or more moving.” Picariello also reported that “all the performances, under the direction of Jonathan Munby, are excellent, with particularly stellar turns from the three women” and that the “simple set by Mike Britton and the shadowy lighting by Oliver Fenwick are brooding and gorgeous, a stylized representation of the darkness that shrouds this world.” While noting the “hilarity” provided by Gobbo and Portia’s suitors, this review-writer asserted that “it is the darkness that rules in this production.” Picariello acknowledged that the “challenges in the text to a modern audience are dealt with well,” but remained puzzled “over the addition” of some of Munby’s insertions, particularly Antonio’s attempt to kiss Bassanio—but she found Shylock’s baptism “heartbreaking.” Picariello concluded, “It’s a punch to the gut, a brilliant production, and a performance that will stay with you long after the torches go out.”
On TheaterMania, David Gordon declared, “When Jonathan Pryce takes the stage in the Shakespeare's Globe production of The Merchant of Venice, time stops.” It’s a “multifaceted performance . . . so nuanced that he dominates” the production. “When he’s not onstage, though, the nearly three-hour evening has a tendency to sag,” lamented the TM reviewer. “During Pryce's offstage scenes," Gordon observed, especially in the “romantic moments between the lovers,” which “never quite gel,” the production “is disappointingly black-and-white.” Jerry Beal of Theater Pizzazz asserted that, despite its difficult nature, director Munby “is bold, imaginative, and thoroughly in charge of his vision” for the production. He reported that “while the cast is . . . uniformly outstanding,. . . Jonathan Pryce is luminous” as Shylock. Elyse Sommer dubbed the Globe’s Merchant “striking” and Pryce’s Shylock “Memorably moving” on CurtainUp. She described the production as a “fascinating tackling of this dramatic schizophrenia.”
[In addition to Diana’s appraisal that Merchant is an anti-Semitic play, she also wondered whether any court would actually accept Shylock’s claim as valid. I have no idea what the law of Venice would say in the 1590s, but I’m pretty sure that today in the United States such a contract would be deemed unenforceable. I’m no legal authority, however, so why not turn to someone who is to ponder this question? As it happens, such an expert has weighed this case—no less a judicial personage than Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg of the U.S. Supreme Court. And where should she hear this case, an appeal on Shylock’s behalf? Why, in Venice, of course!
[There’s a long tradition of legal heavyweights presiding over mock trials from Shakespeare’s plays—trials of Macbeth and Richard III for murder, hearings to determine if Hamlet is competent to be tried for the death of Polonius, divorce cases for Katherina and Petruchio , and so on. The following article, Rachel Donadio’s “Ginsburg Weighs Fate of Shylock” (New York Times, 28 July 2016), published shortly after I saw the play, reports on one such mock tribunal. I thought it was pertinent enough to append to my report on the Globe’s staging of The Merchant of Venice:
[VENICE — What do Supreme Court justices do on their summer vacations? For Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg — longtime liberal standard-bearer, recent Donald J. Trump critic — this year’s answer is: Go to Venice, watch your grandson perform in a production of “The Merchant of Venice” and preside over a mock appeal of the city’s most notorious resident, Shylock.
[And so, on Wednesday afternoon, in the monumental 16th-century Scuola Grande di San Rocco, beneath ceiling paintings by Tintoretto, Justice Ginsburg and four other judges, including the United States ambassador to Italy, John R. Phillips, heard arguments on behalf of Shylock and two other characters, before reaching a unanimous ruling.
[“I’d describe it as fun,” Justice Ginsburg said of the coming mock appeal in an interview on Tuesday, in which she talked about Venice, which she first visited on her honeymoon in 1954, and Shakespeare, whose work she loves — but not about Mr. Trump, weeks after she said she regretted her remarks criticizing the man who is now the Republican presidential nominee.
[The mock appeal began where the play ended: Shylock, the conniving Venetian Jewish moneylender, insists on collecting a pound of flesh from Antonio, who has defaulted on a loan. But a judge, actually Portia disguised as a man, finds Shylock guilty of conspiring against Antonio and rules that he must hand over half his property to Antonio and the other half to the state.
[Antonio says he will forgo his half, on the condition that Shylock convert to Christianity and will his estate to Jessica, Shylock’s wicked and rebellious daughter, who has run off to Genoa with Lorenzo, a Christian. Shylock, humiliated, agrees.
[After about two hours of arguments and about 20 minutes of deliberations, the judges issued a unanimous ruling: To remove the question of the pound of flesh — “We agreed it was a merry sport, and no court would enforce it,” Justice Ginsburg said — to restore Shylock’s property, to restore the 3,000 ducats that he had lent to Antonio, and to nullify the demand of his conversion.
[“The conversion was sought by Antonio,” Justice Ginsburg said. “The defendant in the case was decreeing the sanction. I never heard of a defendant in any system turning into a judge as Antonio did.” She added, to laughter, “And finally, after four centuries of delay in seeking payment, we think that Shylock is out of time in asking for interest.”
[The court was not unanimous in what to do with Portia. The judges ruled that because Portia was “an impostor,” a “hypocrite” and “a trickster,” she would be sanctioned by having to attend law school at the University of Padua, where one of the judges, Laura Picchio Forlati, taught. Then she would have to pursue a master of laws degree at Wake Forest University, where another of the judges, Richard Schneider, is a professor and dean.
[Mr. Schneider said it wasn’t daunting to share the bench with Justice Ginsburg. “Because she was wonderful and welcoming,” he said.
[The audience was gripped, even in sweltering heat. “It’s an intellectual version of reality television,” said Dominic Green, a Shakespeare scholar and professor at Boston College, who attended.
[It was an all-star Shakespeare event. Before deliberations began, F. Murray Abraham recited the “hath not a Jew eyes?” speech. While the judges deliberated, the Shakespeare scholars Stephen Greenblatt and James Shapiro discussed the play.
[The mock appeal was linked to a production of “The Merchant of Venice” being staged in the main square of Venice’s Jewish ghetto, performed by the New York-based Compagnia de’ Colombari, part of a series of events this year marking the ghetto’s 500th anniversary.
[Justice Ginsburg said she’d become involved in the mock appeal after learning about the “Merchant of Venice” production from friends who spend time each year in Venice, including Judith Martin, who writes as Miss Manners, and the mystery novelist Donna Leon. (Asked who had paid for her visit, the justice said she had come to Venice after speaking at a conference hosted by New York University in Barcelona.)
[Over the years, Justice Ginsburg has presided over several other mock Shakespeare appeals. “In the one I like most, the question was whether Hamlet was competent to stand trial for the murder of Polonius,” Justice Ginsburg said. “My judgment was, yes he was. But not only Polonius, but the grand jury should consider whether he should be indicted for Ophelia’s death.”
[After Justice Ginsburg expressed interest in a mock appeal, the play’s director, Karin Coonrad, did a Skype audition with the justice’s grandson, Paul Spera, an actor who lives in Paris. She cast him as Lorenzo, who runs away with Jessica, Shylock’s daughter.
[“He’s very, very good,” Justice Ginsburg said of her grandson’s performance. “I admit to being a little prejudiced on the subject, but I thought he was wonderful.”
[Mr. Spera, 30, said his grandmother had noticed that they had cut two lines from a famous scene with the refrain “In such a night as this.” “My bubbe was a little disappointed by that,” Mr. Spera said after opening night. Yes, he said, he calls her “bubbe,” the Yiddish term for grandmother.
[There had been some controversy among Jews in Venice about performing such a problematic play. “When I was going to school, ‘The Merchant of Venice’ was banned because it was known as an anti-Semitic play,” Justice Ginsburg said. She said she agreed with the assessment. “That’s what Shakespeare meant it to be,” she said. “Shylock is a villain. He’s insisting on a pound of flesh. He’s sharpening his knife.”
[Shaul Bassi, a professor of Shakespeare at the University of Venice and a key organizer of the mock trial and the play, sees it differently. “It’s not an anti-Semitic play, it’s a play about anti-Semitism,” he said. Mr. Bassi, a co-founder of the nonprofit organization Beit Venezia, said he hoped the production would show the ghetto as a meeting place of cultures. “This is an incredible opportunity to rethink this place,” he said.
[The Jewish community of Venice, which numbers 450 people, is raising funds to restore the five synagogue buildings on the ghetto’s main square, which are crumbling after lack of maintenance, and to reimagine the Jewish Museum. “It’s not a mausoleum, it’s not a look at the past,” said David Landau, who leads the community’s restoration committee.
[Back at the mock trial, after the judges wrapped up, the last word didn’t go to Justice Ginsburg but to Arrigo Cipriani, the owner of Harry’s Bar, which sponsored a cocktail reception after the ruling. Justice Ginsburg entered to applause, and was promptly handed a Bellini.]