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Dangereuse: Globe Theatre’s ‘The Merchant of Venice’ at The Kennedy Center

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W.H. Auden once said ,“Shylock is the outsider because he is the only serious person in the play.” Jonathan Pryce’s Shylock is a deeply serious person, and Pryce’s magnificent portrayal of Shylock’s despair lays bare the heart and tortured soul of the man. The Merchant of Venice is a difficult play, and it is rare to see a production that successfully surmounts its intricate challenges. The Shakespeare’s Globe production offers not only a penetrating vision of the play, but a devastating portrait of a corrupt society.

The visual and aural beauty of the performance is captured by a few images; Cupid, all in gold, appears in sparks of light. Actors in Elizabethan garb dance and sing; any one of them could have stepped out of a portrait of Elizabeth I or her sister Mary. Shylock stands, trembling, surrounded by solemn music, as the sounds of “Credo” echo behind him. Designer Mike Britton, Lighting Designer Oliver Fenwick, Composer Jules Maxwell, and Choreographer Lucy Hind, under the direction of Jonathan Munby, create a world which is rich with meaning.

Jonathan Pryce and Phoebe Pryce. Photo courtesy of Globe Theatre.

Jonathan Pryce and Phoebe Pryce. Photo courtesy of Globe Theatre.

Pryce is surrounded by a splendid cast. Bassanio (Dan Fredenburgh) is engagingly remorseful when he asks his devoted friend Antonio (Dominic  Mafham) for yet another loan. They are an interesting pair; Antonio is slim, low-key, and full of suppressed emotion. Bassanio is voluble, confident, the quintessential man about town. The carefully modulated subtlety of their ambiguous relationship is a highlight of the production.

Rachel Pickup’s Portia begins on a slightly frivolous note and deepens into a compelling portrait of a passionate, witty yet flawed woman. Dorothea Myer-Bennett, as her maid Nerissa, has a wickedly delicious sense of humor.

The moral gulf between Elizabethan society and our own is particularly striking in Merchant. Here, the anti-Semitism is not softened for a modern audience, which is an audacious choice. This interpretation gives an exhilarating edge to the production. It is worth noting that there were only a few hundred Jews in England in this period. They were expelled from England by Edward I in 1290. Jews were called devils, and Christ-killers, and suspected of terrible crimes. In the influential Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, they were accused of “heinous abominations, insatiable butcheries, treasons, frenzies, and madness.”

Antonio’s treatment of Shylock is unusually severe, and it makes Shylock’s rage even more powerful. Antonio’s friends Solanio (Raj Bajaj) and Salarino (Brian Martin) attempt to cheer him up in the first scene, but they never come close to the source of his anguish. Along with the boisterous Gratiano (Jolyon Coy) they add considerable color and energy to the piece. Gratiano points to the audience with a slight leer as he refers to a “maid not vendible.” This got a big laugh although technically the line is about “old maids”.

Shylock has a servant, Launcelot Gobbo (Stefan Adegbola), whom he palms off on Bassanio for alleged gluttony and laziness. It is just possible, of course, that Shylock’s perspective was distorted and Gobbo’s behavior was completely normal. Adegbola is a wonder; he ad libs with hilarious abandon, even welcoming a few audience members on to the stage.

Phoebe Pryce’s Jessica is refreshingly complicated. There is tension between her and Portia, and she is clearly anxious to fit in with the sophisticated society of Belmont. She wants to become a Christian, yet seems attached in some ways to her Jewish prayers. As her lover Lorenzo, Andy Apollo is especially fine as he stands up for his beloved, even though his companions tend to mock Jews and Judaism.

The Casket Scene, where Portia’s hapless suitors attempt to guess the correct answer and obtain her hand, is irresistibly funny. Giles Terera (Prince of Morocco) and Christopher Logan (Prince of Arragon) are spectacularly loony and must be seen to be believed. Colin Haigh’s Balthasar resembles Mr. Carson in Downton Abbey; grounded, indomitable, and ever so slightly bored. Michael Hadley (Duke of Venice/Tubal) and the Ensemble (John Hastings and Meghan Tyler) perform their supporting roles with self-assurance and verve.

Jonathan Pryce and Dominic Mafham. Photo courtesy of Globe Theatre.

Jonathan Pryce and Dominic Mafham. Photo courtesy of Globe Theatre.

Lines and characters have been cut, and there are some superb additions as well. This production is notable for its trenchant analysis of the myriad forms of hypocrisy.

The Merchant of Venice is a banquet for lovers of Shakespeare everywhere.

Running Time: Two hours and 45 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.

The Merchant of Venice plays  through July 30, 2015, 2016 at The Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater – 2700 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call (202) 467-4600, or purchase them online.

Running Time: Two hours and 45 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.

The Merchant of Venice plays through this Saturday, July 30, 2015, 2016 at The Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater – 2700 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call (202) 467-4600, or purchase them online.

LINKS:
Review #1: ‘The Merchant of Venice’ at The Kennedy Center by David Friscic.

Review #2: ‘The Merchant of Venice’ at The Kennedy Center by Lauren Katz.

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