The Merchant of Venice as produced by Shakespeare’s Globe hits a bullseye with every artistic nuance, every original interpretation, every actor’s performance. It remains true to its genre as a Shakespearean comedy and to the time period in which Shakespeare wrote the play while exploring modern connotations of the characters’ actions. And, perhaps most rewarding, it allows Jonathon Pryce’s Shylock to be the loathsome antagonist while treating his predicament with sympathy.
More often than not, modern productions of Shakespeare’s plays find originality through experimentation with time periods. The only other production of The Merchant of Venice that I have seen was also at Chicago Shakespeare (albeit long before the company’s current theater at Navy Pier), and some two decades later I remember it most for its roaring 20’s backdrop, its polished all-black set, and its ending in which Shylock is seen continuing his Jewish prayers above the other characters, who are engaged in dancing and celebration.
That was a fantastic production that cemented The Merchant of Venice as one of my favorite Shakespearean plays—but in the Globe’s new production with a limited engagement in the US, the authentic time period contributes to the captivating visual experience created by director Jonathan Munby and designer Mike Britton. The first 10 minutes are a party set to original music in which the drunken, masked guests flirt amongst themselves while dancing and clapping to the music. The drama begins when two men with long beards and heads covered by red caps attempt to walk past—they are harassed, thrown to the ground, kicked, and spit upon by the now-drunken mob. Before the first words of Shakespeare’s script are uttered, Munby has created a Venice which thrives on merriment and art along with the dark hovering cloud of anti-Semitism.
Since Shylock, synonymous with his growing need for “a pound of flesh,” is the best known character, it is easy to forget that he is not the titular merchant of Venice (the actual merchant is Antonio—more to come regarding his fantastic portrayal by Dominic Mafham). It’s also easy to overlook that Merchant includes one of Shakespeare’s most entertaining subplots, a plot contrivance that parallels the motifs of a fairy tale. The beautiful, wealthy, and nobly-born Portia (Rachel Pickup) must accept the hand of marriage from the first suitor to successfully pass her deceased father’s test. The suitor will open a box of gold, a box of silver, or a box of lead—each with a unique inscription. He who chooses the box with Portia’s portrait inside will be her husband. He who chooses falsely will accept his own folly before departing. Giles Terera as the Prince of Morocco and Christopher Logan as the Prince of Arragon both deliver brilliant comic performances as they monologue about which box to open—the arrogance of each character can be credited to Shakespeare’s script, but their complete repugnance as individuals must be credited to the actors and their comic mannerisms.
As Antonio, Mafham’s performance is one of remarkable restraint. One challenge of presenting Antonio is his dialogue carries a deeper subtext today than was intended in the late 1500’s. He loans his friend Bassanio (Dan Fredenburgh) 3000 ducats to pursue Portia for no other reason than his “love” for Bassanio. He risks his own future by taking a loan from Shylock on the hope that his merchant ships will return safely and profitably to Venice, and when he is unable to repay the loan in the agreed upon three months, he states often that his sacrifice will be well worth the penalty so long as Bassanio continues to hold him in the highest esteem. In Shakespeare’s day, audiences might have accepted friendship as a credible motivation behind Antonio’s actions—but in the face of modern psychology, Antonio seems more than a little too eager to hold Bassanio beholden to his memory. Fredenburgh is subtle in the expression of his love throughout most of the show, and the payoff is extraordinary in the one moment, following Antonio’s near death, when he almost succumbs to his inner desires by moving forward to kiss Bassanio during an embrace.
The most memorable performance, of course, belongs to Jonathon Pryce as Shylock. Pryce’s Shylock is very in tune with setting. In early scenes, he cowers when speaking to the Christians, who pull his beard and abuse him without second thought. He is loudest in the privacy of his home, where he his overly-authoritative with his daughter Jessica (played by Pryce’s real-time daughter Phoebe Pryce) thus setting the stage for Jessica to run away with a Christian after stealing thousands of ducats from her father. His rage in having lost his daughter and his money manifests itself against Antonio, who becomes the Christian target to avenge all of the wrongs pressed upon Shylock as a Jew in this society. In court, he is logical and convincing in pleading his case as to why he is choosing the pound of flesh for the forfeited loan rather than accepting twice what was owed to him. While Antonio’s most climactic moment is driven by love, Shylock’s is driven by the deepest despair when, after he is told he will be forced to convert to Christianity, his cap is cruelly knocked off in the court room and he is forcibly not allowed to pick it up. Pryce held no punches in his interpretation of Shylock—his Shylock was destroyed from the inside by his need for revenge and manifested on the outside as a bloodthirsty murderer (albeit a murderer supported by the law); however, when Pryce breaks down on stage, holding his hands over his head, destroyed by appearing with his head uncovered for the first time—the tale of Shylock’s disgrace becomes heartbreaking.
Shakespeare’s Globe and Chicago Shakespeare are a well-matched pair, made stronger because Barbara Gaines, Chicago Shakespeare’s artistic director, sits on the The Globe Council. With this special engagement of The Merchant of Venice performed at Navy Pier, Chicago Shakespeare has explored three different faces of revenge in the 2015-16 season, which also included The Tempest and Othello. This trilogy proves that while Shakespeare created many devoted lovers and many scheming kings, few motivations drive his plays with the same fire as revenge.
NOTE: This marked a second outing for Bartlett High School English teachers are the Chicago Shakespeare. We are all looking forward to BHS’s soon-to-be-acclaimed Romeo and Juliet this fall.