by Jerry Beal
Within the customary genres of comedy, tragedy, and history that are used to describe William Shakespeare’s plays, there is a sub-set into which some are also frequently placed. Generally included in this category are “The Winter’s Tale,” “Measure for Measure.” “Cymbeline,” and “The Merchant of Venice;” they are referred to as problem plays. Certainly each contains problems arising from the stories being told, ones which, as in any worthy play, the characters struggle to resolve. The reference here, though, is to a different kind of problem, namely the resistance of these works to being easily subsumed into one of the larger categories.
“Merchant,” as demonstrated in this compelling production here courtesy of London’s Globe Theatre, maintains that resistance. Launcelot Gobbo, Christian servant to Shylock, hearing two contrary voices as he decides whether to leave his Jewish master or stay, brings two audience members on stage and has them recite the opposing advice for him, a vaudevillian moment whether the actor himself recites it or, as here, engages others. Within half an hour, Shylock is asserting his humanity as a Jew when questioned about his desire for a pound of flesh if a loan he has made is not repaid- “Hath not a Jew eyes? If you prick us, do we not bleed?” The play is listed among the comedies, but the issues of love, ethics, values, anti-Semitism, greed, and identity, have always made that designation open to debate. Director Jonathan Munby attests to having long wrestled with those contradictions- “You’re laughing one minute, crying the next, being torn from pillar to post, emotionally, psychologically.” Along with these oppositions, the play’s apparent principal story- whether Antonio will be able to repay his loan or lose his life- is often given equal or less weight than the efforts of Portia to find a suitable husband, or Shylock’s daughter’s elopement, or Gobbo’s aforementioned confusion, or the romantic byplay between Portia’s friend Nerissa and Gratiano.
Given this array, it is clear why so many directors have sought the challenge of attacking and basking in this material. Munby is bold, imaginative, and thoroughly in charge of his vision. Ten minutes of music and dancing precedes the opening dialogue, establishing a world of play, hedonism, even debauchery which is soon seen as in conflict with the cloistered, solemn world of Shylock. The Belmont in which Portia has been comfortably raised is established with jeweled curtains enclosing what had previously been an open stage.
For the second act trial scene, simplicity is everything in the staging and setting. When Jessica makes the painful decision to become a Christian, she mournfully recites one of Judaism’s essential prayers. And while the cast is, as expected, uniformly outstanding, “Merchant” invariably rests on the incarnation of Shylock. I have seen superb predecessors in Al Pacino, Derek Jacoby, and the brilliant English actor Phillip Voss, but without making comparisons, Jonathan Pryce is luminous. In turn gentle and frightening, reasonable and overcome with emotion, he is a figure of fear and pity, generating great pathos both because of and despite of a rigidity that leaves him with nothing. This is another masterful performance from a great actor.
Additional cast members:Dominic Mafham, Rachel Pickup, Phoebe Pryce, Andy Apollo, Dan Fredenburgh , Dorothea Myer-Bennett, Jolyon Coy.
Lincoln Center Festival (Rose Theater) 2 hrs. 50 min. www.lct.org