The Merchant of Venice

Theatre, West End
Recommended
4 out of 5 stars

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

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Jonathan Pryce is the right casting as Shakespeare's controversial Shylock

This review is from May 2015. 'The Merchant of Venice' returns to the Globe for 2016, with Jonathan Pryce in the lead. 

Shakespeare’s Jewish money-lender Shylock, who demands his pound of flesh when the merchant Antonio is unable to pay back a loan, is an infamously tricky role today – a tightrope-walk with the risk of anti-Semitism.

So it’s always strange how little he’s actually in ‘The Merchant of Venice’. It takes a while for him to turn up, and the trial that ends his story happens jarringly early. And here, in the Globe’s first show of its outdoor season, it feels particularly stark because Jonathan Pryce is electrifyingly good in the part.

This is Pryce’s first appearance at the Globe, but he owns the stage with the same quiet, fierce intensity he’s currently bringing to ‘Game of Thrones’. There’s no cackling villainy here. His Shylock is fuelled by a cold rage born of a lifetime’s worth of insults spat at him by the feckless Christian Venetians.

In a bit of dream casting for publicists, Shylock’s daughter, Jessica, is played by Pryce’s real-life daughter, Phoebe Pryce. Luckily, it doesn’t come across as an empty stunt. Pryce Jr really sells both her character’s frustration with her father and her sense of vulnerability after running away with her lover, Lorenzo.

It’s in the small, glancing moments – like heiress Portia blithely ignoring Jessica after paying lip-service to welcoming her into Venetian society, or Shylock carefully picking up a holy book knocked from his hand – that Jonathan Mumby’s production really sings. Unscripted character beats, like Shylock and Jessica arguing in Yiddish, deepen the play.

Mumby also knows how to work the Globe’s crowd, and the scenes in which a series of ‘Allo ‘Allo!’-style suitors fail to win Portia’s hand are well-performed and genuinely funny. But such broad brushstrokes sometime feel disconnected from Shylock’s scenes.
Rachel Pickup is a sharp and witty Portia. But the production never quite digs as deeply as it could into her predicament as a woman ‘owned’ by her dead father – who left strict instructions on how his daughter’s husband will be chosen in his will. For a play so preoccupied with questions of worth and value – questions that directly relate to Shylock – this feels like an irony fudged.

Maybe this fine production feels slightly odd partly because times have changed. In an age of ‘Breaking Bad’ and compelling anti-heroes, we want more, not less, of Shylock. Particularly when he’s acted by Pryce.

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