The Merchant of Venice may be considered the most problematical of Shakespeare’s problem plays, especially in the current climate of a perceived threat of heightened antisemitism, but there’s more than one Yiddish version of the story, including M. Zamler’s 1929 novel with a brand new title, Shaylock (Der Soyher fun Venedig). Tellingly it is billed as based on Shakespeare’s tragedy.
Shylock’s is not the title role in Jonathan Munby’s spirited, yet thoughtful new production for Shakespeare’s Globe, but Jonathan Pryce’s commanding, complex Shylock takes centre stage in each of the few scenes Shakespeare writes for him. In fact Shylock and his rebellious daughter Jessica (played by Pryce’s real-life daughter Phoebe Pryce) get a few more lines than usual – they first erupt on to the stage in the middle of a furious row – in Yiddish!
Pryce (a notable Fagin, but banish all thoughts of that here) has said in interview that he would love it if the audience booed him, yet by the time they watch him arriving in court armed with knife and scales to cut and weigh the famous pound of Antonio’s flesh, it’s clear how much he has had to bear from all the Christians of Venice – especially from Antonio, who really does "spit upon" his "Jewish gabardine" (with the compulsory yellow circle, forerunner of the Nazi yellow star, stitched on the breast) even as he is asking to borrow money. There’s an especially shocking moment, when Shylock’s treasured copy of the five Books of Moses (the Torah), that he clearly carries with him for constant consultation (here looking up the story of Jacob and Laban which Shakespeare has him reference), is wrenched out of his hands and contemptuously flung on the ground. And skull caps off to Munby for some nice research – when Shylock stoops to rescue it, he kisses it to restore respect, a gesture you can see in any synagogue when a prayer book is accidentally dropped.
His distress at hearing that Jessica has exchanged his late wife’s ring for a monkey is especially touching, bringing a temporary moment of quiet sympathy from the usually raucous groundlings, at least the night I saw the play.
Phoebe Pryce’s Jessica has her own awkward path to negotiate once she has broken free of her father to flee with her Christian love Lorenzo. Although wealthy heiress Portia makes the new couple welcome at her grand home and leaves them in charge of it, she causes her young guest a moment of discomfiture when she takes her place to partner Lorenzo in a formal dance that just happens to be slightly suggestive too – does it perhaps smack a little of droite de seigneur?
And usually the last the audience sees of Shylock is a broken man begging for leave to go from the court, under imminent threat of being forced to convert to Christianity. Here his last word is "credo" ("I believe") part of a Latin mass, a conversion ceremony orchestrated by Antonio – either watched or imagined by a distraught Jessica.
But of course Shakespeare’s Globe is not staging Shaylock. Munby’s reading of Shakespeare’s comedy really does get laughs from the whole house, not just the delighted groundlings, two of whom get to strut their stuff onstage to some of the loudest applause that greets every bit of inspired stage business. They are roped in to help out the clownish servant Launcelot Gobbo, who deserts Shylock for a new master ahead of Jessica’s flight. Stefan Adegbola works the crowd with obvious and expert delight. It’s a pleasure to watch him at work – and so happy in it too!
Others shine in smaller roles as well. Dorothea Myer-Bennett as Portia’s waiting gentlewoman Nerissa, is wonderfully sprightly and intelligent, getting laughs from every echo of her mistress, for example as she is courted by Gratiano, man to Portia’s chosen suitor Bassanio; and even in the sometimes tedious subplot which sees both mistress and maid, disguised in male attire tricking their new husbands into yielding up the rings they gave them to plight their troth. David Sturzaker’s Gratiano is more likeable than some, despite his eager embrace of antisemitism, which is after all as endemic in Venice as anywhere else in 16th-century Europe – and despite an opening gambit that has him throwing up after a night out.
Scott Karim’s Prince of Morocco, somehow managing to be dignified and ridiculous at the same time and Christopher Logan’s wonderfully daft Prince of Arragon, straight out of Carry On Columbus, get the very most out of their cameo roles. They underline the ‘Little Venice’ prejudice of Portia and her clique, worthy of UKIP; for the young women have already ridiculed suitors from all over Europe before this brave pair dare to face the rather cruel trial that Portia’s late father has decreed for those who seek her hand.
That’s not to say that Rachel Pickup’s intelligent, even prickly Portia and Daniel Lapaine’s handsome though febrile Bassanio and Dominic Mafham’s repressed Antonio don’t hold their own throughout. It’s more a paean to the completeness and effectiveness of this production in every role.
Mike Britton’s simple stage design, letting his colourful costumes sing out, and Jules Maxwell’s delicious music, played and sung by a surprisingly small and hugely effective ensemble (singers Jeremy Avis (also musical director) and Michael Henry and Nuno Silva with Dai Pritchard on clarinets and Catherine Rimer on cello) enrich this hugely satisfying period production.
By Judi Herman
Photography by Manuel Harian
The Merchant of Venice runs until 7 June. 7.30pm & 2pm. £16-£43 seats, £5 standing. Shakespeare's Globe, 21 New Globe Walk, SE1 9DT; 020 7401 9919. www.shakespearesglobe.com