Shakespeare’s Globe has brought a wonderful The Merchant of Venice to The Kennedy Center for an unfortunately too-brief stay. Jonathan Munby’s production is powerful, smart, handsome, melodious, and quite funny.
Shakespeare’s play has often occasioned controversy, as people have argued the extent to which it reflected the odious anti-semitism of Elizabethan England, or subverted that by drawing an empathic portrait of the Jewish money-lender Shylock, particularly during his “Hath not a Jew…” speech. That sympathetic dimension notwithstanding, however, the play’s plot leaves Shylock broken and humiliated, and it ends with a comic set-piece which includes his tormentors celebrating the cruel fate to which Shylock has been consigned.
In a world where xenophobic impulses can frequently be seen, from the international reaction to the Syrian refugee crisis, through the Brexit vote, to the nomination of Donald Trump, the play gains new resonance, which Munby cleverly accesses. Certainly, the enthusiastic response on Wednesday’s opening night, with the audience on its feet cheering at play’s end, was informed not only by the artistic excellence on stage, but also by the chills of recognition of contemporary circumstances and the current significance of words such as “alien.”
It’s a marvelous Merchant for 21st century audiences.
The production begins before the audience is completely seated and the house-lights have dimmed. It’s a musical prelude: percussion and clarinet; dancing and singing. By the end, the audience is involved, clapping along. This comes to a crashing halt with the entrance of the two Jewish characters — the aliens.
Composer Jules Maxwell’s lovely score frequently employs a countertenor’s voice, which complements Mike Britton’s designs (lit by Oliver Fenwick) as they evoke Renaissance art. Later, in the second half, Antonio is draped across a beam in a manner that suggests a Crucification pose. The look and sound of the evening is gorgeous.
That musical opening is echoed after intermission, as the gentile Lorenzo dances with Jessica, Shylock’s daughter with whom he has eloped. It’s one of several deft touches employed by Munby. Another is when the merchant Antonio’s supplication of Shylock echoes an earlier scene during which Antonio had the greater status, before the tables have turned.
Shylock is played by Jonathan Pryce, familiar to film audiences for his lead role in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil and to TV audiences for Game of Thrones (in a role which has been described to me as “kind of like the Pope Francis of the Taliban”). I am lucky enough to have seen Pryce’s two Tony-winning turns, as the Engineer in Miss Saigon and, earlier, in Trevor Griffith’s play Comedians, one of the most breathtaking performances I’ve ever witnessed.
His Shylock is delicately-drawn. Pryce and Munby show how Shylock channels his grief at the betrayal by his daughter into his intemperate insistence on the pound of flesh that Antonio has frivolously offered as collateral for a loan.
Pryce’s Shylock is almost like someone with OCD, attempting to give order to a chaotic world and circumstance by demanding an exact application of the law. There were a couple of times during the trial scene when he reminded me of my four year-old son; not because the performance is at all childish, but because his tunnel-vision is childlike in its intensity and its surety.
The Merchant of Venice
closes July 30, 2016
Details and tickets
The production is quite accomplished; the text crystal clear and thoroughly explored. Nearly every speaking role involved at least one moment when a line surprised me with its freshness.
That said, I couldn’t take my eyes off Pryce during that trial scene. He gives a master-class in active listening on-stage, and the path from self-assurance to broken-ness was truly compelling.
Pryce’s real-life daughter Phoebe Pryce plays Shylock’s daughter Jessica, and, wow, is she terrific. She doesn’t have a lot of text, but she does have a face which, like her father’s, conveys great depth of feeling. I won’t spoil the production’s final moments, but they are memorable, thanks to these two. Their performances alone would be worth the Pryce of admission.
But we also get the splendid Rachel Pickup as Portia. (She is also a second-generation actor; her father Ronald was at the National Theatre during the Olivier years and can be seen in the documentary Theatreland in support of Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart in Waiting for Godot.) Pickup and Munby achieve a difficult balance: Portia is the hero that we admire for her intelligence and resourcefulness, but they don’t shy from the ugly aspects of this entitled, at times snobbish, woman.
I didn’t care as much for Pickup in disguise as Balthazar, but, to be fair to her, those pants scenes are wickedly difficult to pull off convincingly and, when I wasn’t watching Pryce during that sequence, I was watching Dominic Mafham as Antonio.
Resembling the late British actor Richard Johnson, Mafham imbues Antonio by turns with ennui, dignity, and desperation. Unfortunately, he is involved in Munby’s one major (in my mind) misstep. This is after the trial when Antonio, whose romantic feelings for his friend Bassanio have, to that point, been drawn very subtly, comes in for a kiss, which is deflected by the surprised Bassanio.
This choice rings false. I suppose the idea is that, after the emotional ringer of his near-death experience, Antonio drops his self-protectiveness and allows himself to act on his feelings toward Bassanio. But it doesn’t track with the preceding relationship, it makes Bassanio seem oddly oblivious and Antonio creepily predatory, and, most troublingly, it doesn’t resolve in the subsequent scene. There is no residual awkwardness between the two, or any ramification of the incident at all.
But I can’t trumpet enough how genuinely funny the production is. The comic scenes in this play can often fall flat, or wear out their welcome. Here, they play wonderfully, a tribute again to Munby’s work with his actors.
Dan Fredenburgh as Bassanio gets a lot of mileage in what is, frequently, the straight man role in his scenes. Dorothea Myer-Bennett is an invaluable Nerissa; so deft is she that she doesn’t always need pesky things such as lines in order to be a delightful part of a scene. Jolyon Coy (love his Galsworthian name) is Gratiano, a role that can often become grating, but is a lot of fun here. Then there is Stefan Adegbola as Lorenzo, the clown. I’ve never seen that often-thankless part done so adroitly.
But here I must make a confession. I try really hard to avoid reviewing performances by actors I know or have worked with, but I must admit that I have worked with Adegbola. Although I hadn’t worked with him before I arrived at The Kennedy Center last night.
Midway through the first act, Adegbola bounded off the stage (“Oh, yes, we’re breaking the fourth wall”) and pulled me up (along with another unsuspecting attendee) to help act out Lancelot’s crisis of conscience. He saw my pad and pen and inferred from them that I was a critic, but that did not deter him.
My task, after gazing out at the hundreds of people now staring at me on the Eisenhower stage, was to represent the fiend tempting Lancelot to leave his master Shylock, entreating him to “Budge,” which I was to say three times.
The first rule of scene-work is to find the build to a scene; the first of acting Shakespeare is, when repeating a word, to give it a distinct energy each time. Consequently, each of my “Budge!”’s became more forceful.
“You’re really getting into this,” announced Adegbola, before concluding, “I’ve always thought that critics were really frustrated actors.”
The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare. Directed by Jonathan Munby. Featuring Stefan Adegbola, Andy Apollo, Raj Bajaj, Jolyon Coy, Dan Fredenburgh, Michael Hadley, Colin Haigh, John Hastings, Christopher Logan, Dominic Mafham, Brian Martin, Dorothea Myer-Bennett, Rachel Pickup, Jonathan Pryce, Phoebe Pryce, Giles Terera, Meghan Tyler, Jeremy Avis, Lea Cornthwaite, Harry Napier, Dai Pritchard. Designer: Mike Britton. Composer: Jules Maxwell. Choreographer: Lucy Hind. Fight Director: Kate Waters. Lighting Designer: Oliver Fenwick. Sound Designer: Christopher Shutt. Associate Director: Kevin Bennett. Stage Manager: Ian Farmery. Produced by Shakespeare’s Globe. Presented by The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Reviewed by Christopher Henley. Un-billed cameo performance: Christopher Henley.