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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
THE MERCHANT OF VENICE
at Shakespeare's Globe

MONEY LENDING
By MICHAEL COVENEY

  Phoebe Pryce and Jonathan Pryce/ Ph: Manuel Harlan

Within the past year we’ve seen this inexhaustibly interesting play – it’s one of my favourites these days – three times: Rupert Goold’s brilliant Royal Shakespeare Company Merchant of Vegas rethink revived at the Almeida; this new production by Jonathan Munby at the Globe starring Jonathan Pryce as Shylock; and yet another RSC staging (see below) in Stratford-upon-Avon.

Pryce is easily the ruler on the Rialto just as he was the pick of the pickpockets as Fagin in the first cast of the Sam Mendes/Cameron Mackintosh Oliver! He doesn’t “act” Jewish at all, but finds the suspicious dark inner broodiness of the Venice moneylender, delivering the “Hath not a Jew eyes” speech (as he wipes off a dollop of spittle) with a seething, controlled anger and an attractive emotional hesitancy.

He actually makes of Shylock a fully sympathetic character without resorting to cheap sentimentality. The ring of his wife Leah, for instance, which he would not lose “for a wilderness of monkeys,” is a cry of stabbing pain, as moving as Olivier’s when he played it, but without the gleeful little jig on hearing news of the first shipwreck off Genoa.

The production is elegant, fairly traditional, illuminated by a willowy, ice-cool Portia from Rachel Pickup who stands on a golden podium, like a trophy wife-to-be, as the two ridiculous suitors – Scott Karim’s sword-brandishing Prince of Morocco and Christopher Logan’s hilarious, mincing Prince of Arragon – are drawn to their respective caskets of fool’s gold and silly’s silver.

For women are trade, too, in this play of trials and testing: Portia is fulfilling her dead father’s edict of matrimonial methods of adoption; Shylock is torn between his ducats and his daughter, Jessica, here played, beautifully, by Phoebe Pryce, Jonathan’s real-life daughter, fresh out of drama school; and Portia and Nerissa spoof the literalness of the main trial scene in claiming back the rings they know full well have been given away – to them in disguise as the prosecuting lawyers.

That pound-of-flesh moment, dagger scraping the torso of the supplicant merchant Antonio (Dominic Mafham), who cannot repay his bond, is played to the hilt in all three productions. Pryce turns the incensed Biblical revenger (“The devil can quote scripture for his business,” says Antonio) into instant volatility. At least he was sticking to the letter of the law, whereas the court reacts disproportionately by claiming all Shylock’s land, and forcing him to become a Christian.

You cannot love Portia after this – you can’t like her much anyway, which is part of her perverse appeal – and Munby and Pryce now follow the torrid example of Al Pacino on Broadway a few years ago when he was dragged screaming to the baptismal font in an interpolated new scene. Here, it’s more sedate, but just as chilling, as Pryce is led forth in a church ritual of hymns, incense and surplices.

The resolution in Belmont – “On such a night as this” – is exquisitely done, the sour taste usually left in the mouth by Shylock’s treatment sweetened by the certain knowledge of his assimilation, however nauseating. And there’s a freshly role-defining performance by a fleshy David Sturzaker as a puking scape-grace of a Gratiano.

The Merchant in Stratford

Meawhile, in Stratford, the main point of interest in Polly Findlay’s modern-dress, abstractly designed production is the quirky, sparky Portia of Patsy Ferran, who deservedly won last year’s Critics Circle award as most promising newcomer. Ferran is an elfin comedienne, and the first actress I know to have elicited compliments on having witty elbows since Maggie Smith. She’s so good she very nearly makes something of priggish Portia.

Her big moment comes when she realises that Jamie Ballard’s impassioned Antonio is more in love with her good-looking Bassanio (Jacob Fortune-Lloyd) than she is. She renews her attack on Shylock with naked ferocity, accidentally stumbling on the “not one drop of blood” adjudication that saves the man she wishes were dead.

Shylock himself is dully played by a visiting Israeli actor, Makram J Khoury, but the ironies you might expect from such a casting tactic – embarrassment at being so rude to a kosher acting colleague in a play mistakenly thought to be ant-Semitic – are either timidly forgotten or simply put to one side. It’s a dismal affair all round, save for Ferran, enlivened by two well-worn scenic coups: Bassanio showering the stage in money to pay for the bond, and Gratiano slowly filling the stage with candles at Belmont.

 


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