Tour Review: THE MERCHANT OF VENICE (Shakespeare’s Globe)

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by Lawrence Bommer on August 7, 2016

in Theater-Chicago,Tours

THE GLOBE’S STUNNING PRODUCTION
HIGHLIGHTS SHAKESPEARE’S PLEA
FOR DIGNITY AS MUCH AS MERCY

A decade ago a Chicago critic notoriously concluded his review of The Merchant of Venice by offering a rather perverse take on Shakespeare’s supposedly anti-Semitic play. In a case of devil’s advocacy he argued that Shylock’s punishment (for trying to cancel a debt by killing the bondsman Antonio)–losing half his wealth and abandoning his Jewish religion to become a baptized Christian—actually did the moneylender a favor. Shylock was now inducted into the very club that had previously persecuted him. If you can’t beat them, join them.

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It’s useless to argue that reviewer’s preposterous point. But if you had any doubt that Shylock’s fate was a cruel sentence, not a redemption or reward, it’s in the final (added) scene in Shakespeare’s Globe’s 170-minute touring production. (This marks the esteemed company’s third appearance at Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier.) Surrounded with, or engulfed by, magnificent ecclesiastical trappings, Jonathan Pryce’s pitiful Shylock, agonizing over this forced betrayal, is reluctantly converted, splashed with holy water as if acid had been thrown in his face. It’s a humiliation worse than death.

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In a too-limited engagement that ends August 14, Jonathan Munby’s superb staging gets everything right, beginning with Mike Britton’s monumentally painterly set design. Gorgeously attired in costumes worthy of Veronese, this unimprovable 17-member ensemble knows, collectively and individually, exactly what they’re saying, why, when, and to whom, all but conveying every subtext, nuance and emotion that the Bard intended. Seldom has the look so splendidly fit the sound and both served the sense and psychology of a play that can easily blow up in an audience’s face.

It’s a dangerous undertaking because, like Taming of the Shrew, The Merchant of Venice is a creature of its time as much as its author. Because of the former, it teems with Christian arrogance: The play praises the title character Antonio (Dominic Mafam) for his (homoerotic) devotion to his friend Bassanio but not Shylock’s love for his daughter. It condemns the usurer Shylock for proving as shrewd a businessman as any trader on the Rialto but, alas, doing it while wearing a red skull cap. But because of this particular playwright, there’s humanity to spare. We feel as much as hear how Antonio and his racially-profiling pals have bullied, spat on, reviled and denounced Shylock. Seldom has a supposed villain had more motivation for his palpably defensive revenge.

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Shylock has already lost his beloved Leah. Before the pitiless play is over his daughter Jessica (richly played by Pryce’s daughter Phoebe) is stolen away by handsome Lorenzo (the appropriately named Andy Apollo). All it takes is one more nemesis: Overconfident that Venice’s business-minded law is not as prejudiced as the citizens, Shylock meets his match in Portia (marvelous Rachel Pickup): Bassanio’s new wife, disguised as a young attorney, makes a dynamic difference in creditor Shylock’s showdown with his doomed debtor. (Bassanio had already “won” Portia in the fairy tale-like contest of the caskets, correctly guessing her worth as her late father had intended.)

If anything, as if to contradict his own Taming of the Shrew, Shakespeare makes Portia a proto-feminist heroine: She must conceal her sex to prove her absolute mastery of a case of life-and death litigation. Imagine, as Virginia Woolf did about Shakespeare’s sister, what Portia could have accomplished if she had become an actual attorney in her own right!–“I’m with her.”

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There are so many stories in this dark comedy—the clumsy clowning of the servant Lancelot Gobbo (Stefan Adegbola), the raillery of Jew-baiting Gratiano (Dan Fredenburgh), the patient courtship of the worthy Bassanio (Michael Hadley), the teasing of the wives over their husbands’ lost wedding rings.

But the genius of Munby’s staging is to actually improve on Shakespeare. His new and mute ending makes clear that Merchant is a very conditional comedy. Shakespeare, of course, ends it with the reconciliation of two couples: Mistaken identities are sorted out and two tested marriages get a timely repair. But Munby knows that an audience can’t forget Shylock’s suffering that easily. Like the sexual conversion therapy inflicted on the homosexual Alan Turing, Munby depicts in detail the Doge’s unfeeling sentence: A foreign faith is forced on an improbably martyred Shylock, his baptism resembling a burning at the stake. Jessica, guilty with her own betrayal, can only look at her father’s shaming with more than remorse.

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As engaging as Pickup proves in her incandescent “quality of mercy” speech, at the heart of this urgent and moving revival is Jonathan Pryce’s achingly human Shylock. Not calmly cold or pleadingly humble (as in past performances of this treacherous role), Pryce delivers his “If you prick us, do we not bleed?” tirade with impulsive fury. It’s clear his desire to take a pound of flesh to quit the debt is an uncalculated act of self-protection, payback for enduring a lifetime of hate crimes. A seemingly one-sided drama is instantly balanced by invoking an audience’s craving for fairness as much as pity. Shakespeare and his rapt audiences deserve no less.

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photos © Manuel Harlan

The Merchant of Venice
Chicago Shakespeare Theater
Courtyard Theater on Navy Pier
ends on August 14, 2016
for tickets, call 312.595.5600 or visit Chicago Shakes
global tour continues through October 21, 2016
for dates and cities, visit Merchant

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