Reviews West End & Central Published 5 May 2015

The Merchant of Venice

Globe Theatre ⋄ 23rd April - 7th June 2015

Constant tonal shifts.

Lauren Mooney
Credit: Tristram Kenton

Credit: Tristram Kenton

This is going to make me sound like a bit of walking talking marketing copy, but I do think there’s nowhere quite like the Globe to see a traditional Shakespeare. There’s something about being in that big open space that makes even the most traditional adaptations feel more exciting and alive than they would elsewhere.

You can understand the temptation to play up to the energy and sense of fun latent in a packed-to-the-rafters Globe, and Jonathan Munby’s The Merchant of Venice is straight in there from the get-go with japes, songs and fake-vomit gags. It’s energetic and fun, which you expect from the comedies – but it’s the dramatic scenes for which this play has become best remembered.

Jonathan Pryce is excellent in his Globe debut as Shylock, the reviled Jewish moneylender. Ostensibly the villain of the piece, Munby’s direction nonetheless makes much of the Christians’ cruelty towards him, and in Pryce’s hands it is easy to see how Shylock’s suffering becomes the motivation for his own eventual villainy. It’s the worm turning, the bullied becoming the bully, and it’s difficult to watch.

Although a modern production is inevitably likely to show more sympathy for Shylock than the text does, anti-Semitism being generally less socially acceptable now than it was in the 16th century (oh how far we’ve come), there’s still a slight cognitive dissonance in watching this Merchant. It largely dissipates when Shylock becomes a more out-and-out villain in the latter scenes – but the first half flits between entertaining court flirting scenes and eye-watering anti-Semitism.

The same young things we’re supposed to be rooting for in one scene are, in the next, spitting on an old Jewish man in the street. These constant tonal shifts get a bit tiring – and it’s hard to tell if we’re supposed to be sympathising with this big pack of racist jock lads or not. Ditto Antonio (Dominic Mafham), who is foul to Shylock from the start, but sympathetic in his doomed adulation of Bassanio (Daniel Lapaine), for whom he is willing to give his life. (The hints at this are generally understated, apart from one moment in which Antonio leans in for a kiss, and Bassanio pulls away, which has weirdly no bearing on their relationship in the next scene. Also, the press night audience found the ‘no homo‘ moment funny; I have literally no idea why, and it fucked me off.)

Still, things come together after the interval when, with pairs successfully paired off, the flirting can be largely dispatched with. In an excellent courtroom scene, Pryce’s Shylock gets on with being a well-developed, but essentially despicable, villain. Demanding his pound of flesh from a chained Antonio, Shylock draws the necessary equipment from his bag with hand-rubbing glee, looking like a horrible end of the pier magician.

The inevitable Shakespearean drag is at some of its most bizarre in Merchant, when Portia (Rachel Pickup, having lots of fun) and her maid Nerissa (excellent Dorothea Myer-Bennett, stealing the laughs out from under her fellow performers’ noses whenever she is on stage) become remarkably impressive male court officials for a bit. Pickup’s Portia is always the smartest person in the room, and not above using that to torment the people she supposedly loves. (Q: Is Portia, who loves dressing up and righting wrongs and screwing with people, basically the proto-Sherlock Holmes? More on this theory whenever I’m next in the pub I guess.)

Munby’s Merchant doesn’t always gel together, but it’s worth it for the moments when it does. Its lighter scenes are fun, gentle and accessible; its dramatic scenes are beautifully played by a talented cast, not least the Pryces (Shylock’s daughter is played here by Pryce’s own real-life daughter, Phoebe); and its take on one of Shakespeare’s most divisive characters is complex and fascinating, reminding us at all times that he has learned to hate the way he does from Christians. Though it’s not so dry as to be a morality tale, the moral at the play’s core is still as true and as beautifully told here as when it was first written: that hate and fear breed only more of the same.

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Lauren Mooney

Lauren Mooney is a writer, producer and arts administrator based in London. As well as writing for Exeunt and The Stage, Lauren works at Clean Break and is the writer-producer for Kandinsky.

The Merchant of Venice Show Info


Directed by Jonathan Munby

Written by William Shakespeare

Choreography by Lucy Hind

Cast includes Jonathan Pryce, Daniel Lapaine, Dominic Mafham, Dorothea Myer-Bennett, Rachel Pickup

Original Music Jules Maxwell

Link http://www.shakespearesglobe.com/theatre/whats-on/globe-theatre/the-merchant-of-venice-2015

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