July 22, 2016

Light barely seems to penetrate the atmosphere of “The Merchant of Venice” in the brooding, powerful production from Shakespeare’s Globe that’s being presented through the weekend as part of the Lincoln Center Festival. Little illumination filters through the carved wooden walls that dominate the set, and a blanket of smoke often shrouds the stage like a thick fog, as if to hide the iniquity so vividly on display. The production, which stars a deeply moving Jonathan Pryce as Shylock, does begin on a frolicsome note, with masked actors dancing onstage, as during Venice’s carnival. But a note of discord, of brutality, brings the merriment to a disturbing close, as two Jewish men passing by are attacked and thrown to the ground. Throughout the director Jonathan Munby’s lucid and strongly acted staging, we will remain aware that while this Shakespearean play is classified as a comedy and is poised ambivalently between light and dark, it will generally be the baser aspects of humanity that prevail. This overriding tone, I’m sorry to say, seems eerily attuned to the current troubles that roil the world. The exception, to a degree, is Mr. Pryce’s eloquent, beautifully rendered Shylock, whose abuse at the hands of the Christians of Venice is drawn in stark relief. He is treated with an unusually vicious scorn and even violence by the title character, Antonio (Dominic Mafham), to whom he agrees to lend money in exchange for a bond demanding the famous pound of flesh. But he greets this debasement, and more, with a degree of measured calm that suggests that Shylock has known — or fears — far worse, and must temper his reaction to suit what he knows of the world in which he lives and prospers. It is only in the enclosed realm of his own home, where he can lock the brutalities of the world outside, that he feels any measure of safety. But, of course, Shylock also locks the world’s joys outside — the pleasures of music and play — feeding the discontent and yearning for freedom of his daughter, Jessica, here played with rich feeling by Mr. Pryce’s daughter, Phoebe Pryce. We can sympathize with Jessica’s sense of suffocation and her escape into the arms of the Christian Lorenzo (a likably dashing Andy Apollo), even as Ms. Pryce gently underscores Jessica’s growing ambivalence at her casual, impulsive betrayal of her father. While Mr. Pryce invests even Shylock’s fits of anger and vengeance with a measured complexity, the Portia of Rachel Pickup has fewer grace notes, coming across here mostly as a smart but imperious young woman. She asserts control over her destiny with a brisk asperity that never reveals many glints of warmth, rendering the romantic comedy of the play almost an afterthought. True, the passages in which suitors must choose among three caskets — gold, silver and lead — to win Portia’s hand, is played for robust laughs, with the Prince of Morocco portrayed as a bumbler by Giles Terra, and the Prince of Aragon as a simpering fop by Christopher Logan. But this supposed comedy’s humorous aspects are largely handed over to Stefan Adegbola’s wily, exuberant Launcelot Gobbo, who invites two members of the audience to join him onstage, embodying his debate about whether to abandon his Jewish master, Shylock, and throw his lot in with the Christians. (Gobbo’s father, a rather tiresome character, has been mercifully excised.) The trial scene, the play’s dramatic climax if not its conclusion, brings out the contrast between the affecting dignity of Mr. Pryce’s Shylock and the less palatable aspects of his enemies. Mr. Mafham’s Antonio is shackled to an iron bar, his arms splayed out and his body lifted from the ground, in a pose that obviously evokes Christ on the cross, suggesting that those who are conducting this trial are intent on drawing the comparison, turning Shylock into the stock Jew of vile stereotype, the Christ-killer. Mr. Pryce’s Shylock, meanwhile, evinces little rage and thirst for vengeance — he knows better than to fall into the traps laid for him — but instead argues his case with a measured rationality that, despite its monstrous consequences, never feels tinged with unbridled malice. On the other hand, Portia — disguised as the lawyer Bassanio, arguing for the life of Antonio — seems almost sadistic when she gives her verdict in Shylock’s favor, only to reverse herself at the last minute and, with cool calculation, assert that Shylock himself is guilty of trying to take the life of a Christian. Mr. Pryce’s confusion and abasement are painful to watch, as Antonio seems to relish his control over his persecutor’s fate, allowing him to live only if he converts to Christianity. But in the unsparing view of Mr. Munby’s production, even the victorious Antonio must face the harsh truth that those who do not conform to the prescribed standards of the Christianity of the period are doomed to be outcasts. As in many productions, it is hinted early on that Antonio’s feeling for Bassanio (a solid Dan Fredenburgh) contains elements of sexual, or at least romantic, attraction. But when, after the trial has concluded, Antonio impulsively draws Bassanio into an overly warm embrace, Bassanio rebuffs him with a disgusted shove. “The Merchant of Venice” ostensibly (well, literally) ends with the reunion of Portia and her maid Nerissa (a nicely dry Dorothea Myer-Bennett), with their lovers, Bassanio and Gratiano (Jolyon Coy). But even this scene comes across as something less than flirtatious and celebratory. There’s an element of teasing cruelty in the air as Portia and Nerissa demand to see the rings they gave to their lovers, after blackmailing them, in their male guises, into handing them over in thanks for saving the life of Bassanio’s benefactor, Antonio. The pealing of wedding bells doesn’t exactly ring in our ears as we watch them play with their men like cats batting around mice. But a more cheerful slant to the scene would belie the production’s overriding sense of melancholy. A coda depicting Shylock’s enforced baptism, while Jessica sings a Jewish prayer for forgiveness, concludes the evening on a harrowing note. Mr. Pryce illuminates Shylock’s anguish so vividly, his face a contorted mask of spiritual suffering, that it all but erases any sense of contrasting light and dark in the play. We have reached the heart of the matter, and it is a place where mercy, love and what we commonly think of as simple humanity hold little sway.


April 25, 2012

Just wait till they get angry. That’s the best advice for an audience watching “The Merchant of Venice” at the Clurman Theater, a production that often fumbles the play’s comedy yet expertly explores its furious side.