Review: The Merchant of Venice

How do you solve a problem like Shylock? The British theatre scene is going to take several cracks at the question this season: the Almeida’s production of The Merchant of Venice ran this winter, and both Shakespeare’s Globe and the Royal Shakespeare Company are presenting it this summer. I saw the Globe’s version first, and their answer to that question is compelling and simple: cast Jonathan Pryce. 

One of the reasons I hate labels like ‘romance’ or ‘problem play’ or ‘late comedy’ is because they imply a chronological progression of Shakespeare’s work that simply doesn’t exist. The Merchant of Venice was probably written in the mid 1590s, but this early comedy shares all the troubling aspects that supposedly characterize ‘late comedies’ like Measure for Measure and All’s Well That Ends Well. The relatively straightforward comic story of the debt-ridden gentleman Bassanio’s attempts to woo a wealthy heiress, Portia, can hardly hold up an air of levity when laid against the story of the Venetian merchant Antonio, whose ‘joking’ bond of a pound of his own flesh against 3000 ducats takes a turn when Antonio defaults on the debt and the Jewish moneylender Shylock becomes determined to claim his bond.

Director Jonathan Munby creates a convincingly dangerous Venice, filled with drunken, thoughtless aristocrats whose revels– as we see in an extended masquerade sequence at the beginning of the play– are capable of seamlessly devolving into anti-Semitic violence. Dominic Mafham’s apparently mild-mannered Antonio, pining away with unrequited love for Daniel Lapaine’s particularly dense Bassanio, displays virulent bigotry against Shylock. Its suddenness and violence, combined with the sharp, charming intelligence of Pryce’s asides, weights the play at once in Shylock’s favor without falling into either of the most dangerous traps: turning him into a comic caricature, or portraying him as a nebbish victim whose later retaliatory violence seems to have no cause. 

Despite his many early asides, Pryce’s Shylock is ultimately opaque: when he says the bond will only be a joke, and laughingly insists to Bassanio that he would gain nothing by actually claiming Antonio’s flesh, it is unclear if he is setting up a long game, or really intends to make peace. Either way, the elopement of his daughter Jessica with Antonio and Bassanio’s friend Lorenzo becomes an essential hinge, granted particular weight in this production by allowing the love between Jessica and Lorenzo to be genuine rather than, as is so often the case, cynical and bleak. Ben Lamb plays Lorenzo as staunchly well-meaning, though increasingly aware that there are more differences than he expected between himself and his canny, converted wife. Phoebe Pryce (surely an awkward role to be playing opposite your actual father) is an active presence even in silence: her Jessica is always watching, and unlike so many portrayals, she rejects an overly simplistic understanding of Jessica’s situation. Ms. Pryce not only seems to understand, but is able to wonderfully subtly depict Jessica’s simultaneous love for Lorenzo, confusion and isolation in her new culture, dislike for her father’s repressive household, and affection for the man himself. 

The richness and depth of the Pryces’ characterizations makes it difficult for the Portia and Bassanio’s half of the story to rebalance the scales, though some of the wittier secondary characters– Gratiano (David Sturzaker), Nerissa (Dorothea Myer-Bennett), and the clown Lancelot Gobbo (Stefan Adegbola) in particular– really shine. 

It seems fairly obvious that the sudden and alarming rise of anti-Semitic violence in Europe is why everyone has decided to put on The Merchant of Venice this year, though none of the theatres in question have actually said so thus far. But the questions this production– and particularly its trial scene– raised for me were about power more broadly. The horror of the trial, for me, lay in the ease with which the law was turned against Shylock. We witness the full power of the state come bearing down on him, and the glee with which Portia, Antonio, and the Duke of Venice himself see it happen. They will do anything to turn the law against him. 

The margins of The Merchant of Venice seethe with otherness: a Moroccan prince, a ‘Moorish’ maid servant, Portia’s complaints about suitors who cannot speak Italian– even Adegbola’s increasingly cheerfully rebellious Lancelot, as an emissary from the lower class, contributes to the continual battering of the facade of homogeneity that the rich, white, Christian central characters seem so determined to preserve. While this production only faintly raises the specter of this power, perhaps that is correct: it shifts on the sides and underneath. Shylock can only impotently rage at the society that oppresses him, that steals his daughter from him– and against this backdrop, is vicious vengeance is rendered, if not good, certainly not nonsensical. 

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