Writer: William Shakespeare
Director: Jonathan Munby
Reviewer: Harry Stern
There is a great deal to admire in this new production of an old favourite and even more to enjoy. Actors and audience have a jolly time alike. Yet it remains a perennially problematic play which seems at first acquaintance to endorse a loathsome anti-Semitism from which the world needs to move on. Sure, it can be argued that the overt and sputum-filled discrimination is brought down upon Shylock’s head by none other than the character himself. Do Antonio, Bassanio, Lorenzo et al behave towards him because of the way he has conducted himself in Venice or is his vengeance a rightful course given the Christian provocation? It is a thorny problem about which this otherwise delightful, if slightly old fashioned, production fails to take a stance.
And a stance needs taking otherwise the laughter that emanates all too easily from the audience when the Jew is continually abused evinces little more than a feeling that such prejudice is still rife. And the new set-piece ending to the play completes Shylock’s total humiliation at Catholic hands. Perhaps it even celebrates Shylock’s ultimate dishonor at the same time as the Christians in Belmont celebrate their love and their domestic and doctrinal victories.
Antonio, a merchant, signs away a pound of his flesh in return for the loan of three thousand ducats from Shylock the moneylender in order to support his (certainly in this production) much desired more-than-friend Bassanio. This precipitates a course of action which sees inevitable fallings in and out of love, an elopement of a much loved daughter to a Gentile Lord, a magnificent set-piece courtroom scene, a cross-dressing duo of ladies bent on the salvation of their husbands and some of Shakespeare’s very best poetry.
Munby’s production is sure-footed, direct, uncluttered and very clear. Despite the plot convolutions the audience follows every twist with full comprehension and great enjoyment. Dominic Mafham’s Antonio is dignified and possesses an admirable clarity. Daniel Lapaine’s slightly lightweight Bassanio is nevertheless a convincing friend to the reckless merchant. Only when the friendship exceeds the bounds of its own self imposed propriety does it strike a slightly false note. Rachel PIckup’s Portia is intelligence personified and is ably abetted by Dorothea Myer-Bennett as the canny maid Nerissa. There is a witty scene-stealing characterisation by David Sturzaker as Gratiano while Scott Karim and Christopher Logan are genuinely funny as Morocco and Aragon. Recent RADA graduate Phoebe Pryce gives an assured performance as Jessica. In a nice touch her scenes with her real-life father Jonathan Pryce who plays Shylock are some of the most affecting in the production. Pryce himself is a masterful actor and he imbues Shylock with all the hatred and hauteur you could ask for in the character. He is a lugubrious man who has borne his life’s burden for so long that its very weight has slowed him down and worn him out. Mike Britton’s set is simple yet effective and the costumes are stunning.
Yet, though not to cavil too much for it really is an enjoyable evening, there is a hole that needs filling. Are we for or against Shylock as the recipient of some of the most palpable prejudice on the stage? And in the case of either, I want us to be able to understand why.