By Tristan Lejeune
Sometimes it’s best just to play it straight.
Here in America, we like to toy with our Shakespeare. We set it at different times, we make judicious cuts, we throw in anachronistic flourishes, we let Baz Luhrmann (actually an Australian…) off the leash.
But across the Atlantic, the Brits still have a taste for Shakespeare done for Shakespeare’s sake. The play’s the thing, as Hamlet would say, and those wise limeys know how to get out of the script’s way.
Shakespeare Globe’s tour of The Merchant of Venice, which was directed by Jonathan Munby and performed in the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theatre, is a steadfast and deeply enjoyable production that feels no need to load up with interpretive bells and whistles. The costumes, sets, music and — most importantly — language are all (gasp) Elizabethan. The bard would instantly recognize his own work, which is not always the case these days.
Does that mean embracing and even flaunting the show’s racism? You’d better believe it.
As Jewish moneylender Shylock, film and TV star Jonathan Pryce (most recently seen lighting up the King’s Landing sky on Game of Thrones) finds a place beyond stereotype. His “alien” usurer is merciless and revenge-hungry, yes, but you would be too if the Italian goyim were all such prejudiced assholes. As an actor who has played both Juan Perón and a Bond villain, Pryce has menace down to T, but in scenes where he’s outnumbered by gentile Venetians or discussing his daughter Jessica (real-life daughter Phoebe Pryce), this Shylock is unexpectedly moving.
Equally three-dimensional is Rachel Pickup’s Portia (line by line, the biggest role in the show), who is a convivial hostess to her guests, yet every bit as racist as a lady of her time would likely be. Portia, in moments handled perfectly by Pickup, has lots of side-eye for Jessica and vocal relief at not having to marry someone with brown skin. No comforting lies for a 21st century audience here.
Portia and her suitor Bassanio (Dan Fredenburgh) are older than is typical, around 40, which works well for making them feel like the mature couple among the lovers. It’s less of fit for the two most famous bits of business in the play: the test of the caskets at the beginning and the farce of the rings at the end, both of which feel like the games of children, especially with all the serious matters on the Rialto.
A story filled with anti-Semitic characters is not inherently anti-Semitic. Though Merchant can’t quite get off that clean, it shoves as much of the blame as it can onto the stage, the better to keep it from spilling off.
Thus Lorenzo (Andy Apollo), normally a suave seductor, now comes with a jealous temper brewing beneath his surface. He looks like he’s one bad day away from slapping his wife across the face. And Gratiano (Jolyon Coy), ever a puckish lout, is here a real troublemaker, stumbling in drunk and denying his paternity of a prostitute’s baby.
This is not the first Merchant production I’ve seen that decided to make Antonio (Dominic Mafham) gay, and it certainly works with the text (“he loves the world but for him…”). But with all the misery this comedy piles up by its final curtain, lonely sexual frustration might be one too many. Perhaps Antonio is one more thing that should be played straight.
Because that’s what modern and new about this production: the viewpoint. In a visual metaphor, the sumptuous costumes and terrific scenery are period, but the lights and atmosphere are pure 21st century. This show is so smokey, you might wonder if some fog drifted into the theatre from the production of The Phantom of the Opera going on down the hall.
But the play itself? They play it unadorned, and it is terrific.