Thursday, June 04, 2015

THE MERCHANT OF VENICE at Shakespeare's Globe

Yep, back again!  After years of ignoring the Globe Theatre - even Vanessa Redgrave as Prospero couldn't tempt me through the gates - I am on my second visit this year with several more to come in the summer!  But then this promised to be a memorable production wherever it was staged...

The Globe doesn't always go in for name-casting, preferring usually to cast actors who have worked there before but for Shakespeare's perennial but troublesome THE MERCHANT OF VENICE they have gone to the very top as Jonathan Pryce is giving us his Shylock in Jonathan Munby's new production - and he is not to be missed.

Let others argue about the rights and wrongs of the text - it is surely up to the director and actors to find a way through to make Shylock a believable and finally tragic figure.  It's very hard to find sympathy for any of the Venetian characters - even Portia is a crashing snob - whereas, although he is blindly foolish enough to walk into the trap set by the Christians for him at the climax of the play, it is Shylock who remains the character that it is the easiest to feel sorry for.

It's a play I have only twice on stage - Peter Hall's production in 1989 with Dustin Hoffman and Trevor Nunn's NT production ten years later with a magnificent central performance from Henry Goodman - but I have also seen the 1972 BBC TV version with Maggie Smith as Portia and Frank Finlay as Shylock as well as the 2004 film version with Al Pacino.

It's a play where usually Shylock is the star attraction and, unsurprisingly, Jonathan Pryce dazzles in the role.  Put-upon but proud, his money-lender is a wary, solitary figure whose brusque treatment of his daughter and servant sow the seeds for later troubles but his defiance at all attempts to mollify his seeking the completion of his bond with Antonio is understandable as Pryce also suggests the weariness of the oft-insulted outsider.  It also made a nice change to see an actor on the Globe stage whose delivery was not inaudible when faced away from you.   I must admit that as Pryce swept onto the stage during the play, it occurred to me that he had acted opposite three of my favorite women - Emma Thompson in CARRINGTON, Madonna in EVITA and with Vanessa Redgrave onstage in THE SEA GULL!  What a guy.

Munby has added a coda to the play to end it rightly with Shylock - here we witness his hitherto unseen forced baptism, ending the production on a sombre note as it was accompanied by the sorrowful Jessica singing a Hebrew lament as we watched her father's humiliation of being stripped of his religion.

Indeed the news that Pryce's daughter Phoebe was playing his onstage daughter had me raising a cynical eyebrow but she gave a spirited performance as Jessica, a role that usually feels lightweight, suggesting that her character's marriage into the Christian world might not be a happy ending after all.

As good as Pryce was, luckily this was not a top-heavy star vehicle as Munby's production is also full of other fine performances.  Another noted actor's daughter, Rachel Pickup, was very good as an imperious Portia who gave as good as she got from Pryce in the trial scene and smoothly played the 'quality of mercy' speech so it sprung out of the character and did not have the pointed playing alerting us to This Is A Famous Speech.  She was well-partnered by Dorothea Myer-Bennett (how's that for a handle?) as a tart Nerissa.

The women actually came off best in this production as I felt Dominic Mafham's Antonio and Daniel Lapaine's Bassanio could have been a bit more weighty but there was scene-stealing performances from Stefan Adegbola's rowdy Launcelot Gobbo - even pulling two groundlings onstage to help demonstrate a quandry - and David Sturzaker as jack-the-lad Gratiano.  Nerissa will her work cut out for her getting married to him!

Equally impressive - and seizing their individual scenes like a Hatton Garden robber - were Scott Karim and Christopher Logan as, respectively, the Princes of Morocco and Aragon, Portia's unlucky suitors.  They were a hoot.

There were excellent contributions from Mike Britton's set and costume design as well as Jules Maxwell's evocative music while Jonathan Munby's direction balanced the play's serious and light-hearted moments well while also highlighting aspects of the characters I had not noticed before. 

It is one of the best Shakespeare productions I have seen in a while and if you cannot catch one of it's last performances the good news is that it was being filmed on the night I went so hopefully it will be available for future viewing.

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