The Merchant of Venice has been a long-serving vessel of discomfort for critics and audiences alike, unsure whether the play fuels anti-Semitic sentiment or provides an on-going platform for Jewish representation in the broader global psyche. The representation of Shylock has been fluid, with his character being understood through varied lenses. One thing for sure is that it is he and not Antonio, the supposed protagonist of Shakespeare’s Venetian play, who has warranted the most intrigue.
In Shakespeare’s Globe’s most recent revival of Merchant, Jonathan Pryce fills the well-worn shoes of the moneylender, Shylock. Pryce’s presence is instantly in Shylock’s favour, as the actor has enjoyed a rich career that marks him with an inescapable likeability, and he brings that with him on to the stage. Director Jonathan Munby constructs his production to lend a sympathetic ear toward Shylock, and the famous speech, “Hath not a Jew eyes?” is particularly sombre when unfolded using Pryce’s voice. Shylock’s pitiful social position and strained relationship with his daughter is given further gravitas by interesting casting choices: Jonathan Pryce’s daughter, Phoebe, plays the role of Jessica. The pair make a striking duo on stage and the family tie adds a level of intimacy. Shylock is rendered completely vulnerable.
Yet the production avoids too much melancholy by making the most of the humour, with light comedy in the form of mistaken identities and impossible suitors. The bachelors vying to win Portia’s hand delighted the audience with their camp performances, which deviate sharply from the macabre action of the main plot. The casket scene with the Prince of Morocco (Scott Karim) and The Prince of Arragon (Christopher Logan), where they must choose between a boastful gold, assured silver or humble lead chest to win the hand of the most desired Portia, was warmly received by the generous audience. The production is conscious of involving its audience, in a brave step, Stefan Adegbola drags two members of the audience up on stage to partake in a moment of call and echo that works a treat with crowd.
It’s hardly surprising that the audience is so giving during productions at The Globe as the scene itself is fairly spectacular. With the fading sun and soaring birds adorning the skyline of the circular theatre, it’s difficult not to become swept away in the magic of the space. As darkness descends, Shakespeare’s tale of greed, deceit and mercy unfolds.