Writer: Gareth Armstrong
Reviewer: Selwyn Knight
Many literate folk would profess to at least a passing familiarity with The Merchant of Venice and its antagonist, Shylock. It’s well known that Shylock is the stereotypical jew of the times – a character driven by hatred of the Christian world, who seeks revenge for the persecution he and his kind suffered each day. It’s easy, from the modern perspective, to poke some fun at Shakespeare’s ignorance of Jewry, though, as Gareth Armstrong’s play progresses, we learn a little of the true history of Judaism in Europe at that time and since – and it’s not pretty.
Rhodri Miles brings us Tubal in this production. In The Merchant of Venice, Tubal is a minor character (as Miles reminds us on several occasions, Tubal is credited in only one scene in which he has eight lines), but in Shylock he is our guide and educator, giving us Shylock’s story from a more sympathetic standpoint as well as sharing some context from history – history that is rather unnerving, if not shocking. He discusses, for example, how Jews were barred from most occupations and so were only really in a position to be moneylenders as Christians were unable to charge interest, or that Shakespeare could never have met anyone openly Jewish because all Jews were expelled from Britain in the thirteenth century – hence the setting of the play in Venice. Although Jews were tolerated in Venice, even there they were restricted in their movements, had to wear distinctive hats and live in the ghetto – a word that originates in Venice. The blood libel myth – that Jews routinely sacrifice Christian children to use their blood to make matzos, the unleavened bread eaten at Passover, is discussed together with the shocking revelation that it was still used by some to excuse murder as recently as 1946 in Poland.
We also get a potted history of the way that Shylock has been represented on stage: in earlier productions, he was either a figure of fun or unremittingly villainous. As time went on, representations became more three dimensional and he was played perhaps as, at least in part, a victim. Shakespeare does, of course, give him some cracking lines, for example, when Shylock rails against the treatment he, and other Jews, suffer at the hands of Christians.
But Shylock is by no means a worthy academic treatise; Armstrong’s writing makes Tubal a sympathetic character. Miles ensures we warm to him, and there is plenty of humour in his rendition, too. While there are scenes that are designed to shock us as we see the reality of living as Jews in a Christian world that Shylock and Tubal suffer, there is also plenty of light. Miles slips in and out of his personas – of Tubal, of Tubal ‘being’ Shylock and also as narrator – naturally allowing the whole to keep moving towards Shylock’s inevitable demise. And, of course, we are treated to Tubal’s eight lines.
Miles’ intensity and naturalism – in contrast to his renditions of earlier caricatures of Shylock – are powerful, leading us to empathise with the plight of Tubal, Shylock and Jewry in general at the time. Armstrong and Miles have brought us something rather special: a piece that, in the Reithian tradition, educates as well as entertains, that leaves the audience with plenty of food for thought; it should be essential viewing for anyone who wants to deepen their understanding of one of Shakespeare’s great creations.
Reviewed on 8 May 2019 and on tour | Image: Contributed