If you thought the last you’d see of the High Sparrow was his horrified expression seconds before his sadistic ass was blown sky-high on several tons of wildfire (SPOILER ALE…oh, come on), well here comes Jonathan Pryce. The great English actor—who made Game of Thrones’ smirking, soft-spoken High Sparrow a villain you love to hate—is now playing Shylock in the Shakespeare’s Globe production of The Merchant of Venice, presented by Lincoln Center Festival through Sunday.
Shylock, the Jewish moneylender who plots revenge on the merchant Antonio (Dominic Mafham) for a history of anti-Semitic abuse, is a plum Shakespeare role. Like Hamlet, Lear and Macbeth, it’s one of those rich, unforgettable parts that actors dream of giving their unique spin. Lawrence Olivier, Patrick Stewart, Antony Sher and Al Pacino—to name just a few—have had a go on stage or screen over the past 40 years. The extent of Shylock’s assimilation in Venetian culture is one of the main factors actors and directors weigh in building a new interpretation. That, and his specific relationship with daughter, Jessica (Phoebe Pryce), who abandons Shylock for a Gentile lover under cover of darkness. Shylock feels betrayed, and the resulting anger and sorrow fuels his lust for Antonio’s death (the famous “pound of flesh” for defaulting on a loan). Should we sympathize with Jessica’s choice, or has she internalized the bigotry of the world around her? Shakespeare’s original audience, we assume, would find nothing wrong with insulting a Jewish villain for laughs.
And that’s what makes the play so tricky to pull off. In the 1623 First Folio, The Merchant of Venice was listed under comedies. But despite its fools, punning banter and neatly interwoven love stories, Merchant is not a comedy as understood today. It’s as if Louis CK and Ricky Gervais collaborated on a really dark satire about religious bigotry, full of characters corrupted by money and prejudice…then forgot to say that anti-Semitism is a bad thing. Worse: That if the state forces you to convert to its religion, that’s a happy ending. Make no mistake: We still watch Merchant because Shakespeare puts enough humanist complexity in it (“Hath not a Jew eyes” etc.) to evoke sympathy for Shylock, Antonio and other characters. But the machinery of comedy in Shakespeare’s day demanded the villain’s utter destruction and humiliation: his symbolic spiritual extinction.
Just imagine if, back in 1596, Shakespeare had found a way to engineer the plot so that Shylock and Antonio reach some honest accord; Antonio begs forgiveness for his cruelty; Shylock comes to his senses and delivers a heartbreaking speech about his dead wife, Leah; Jessica and Shylock reconcile with tears and laughter; and finally, Shylock’s friend Tubal steps forward to blow us all away with a vision of the future where all gods are equally divine. Sure, it’s a silly, ahistorical fantasy, but boy, would we love that play today. And boy, do we need it.
Sorry to wander so far from the subject at hand: Jonathan Pryce’s Shylock. But the truth is, the Merchant at the cavernous and unaccommodating Rose Theater is a stodgy, underwhelming affair. More or less Renaissance Venice in its period costumes and incidental music, Jonathan Munby’s staging is unfussy and direct, but rarely exciting. He interpolates new Yiddish dialogue for Shylock and Jessica, and she chants a Hebrew prayer of forgiveness after learning that her father will be forced to convert to Christianity (SPOILER A…oh, come on). Pryce speaks his text with that mellifluous, subtly menacing delivery, shifting from complacent self-satisfaction to howling dismay after Jessica absconds. But his Shylock a generally passive, cerebral performance, all in the voice and very little in the body. Still, what a grand voice. Pryce is one of the last of the classically trained greats: using vocals as a musical instrument to deliver gorgeous prose and poetry.
Otherwise, it’s a standard, competent Merchant that evokes mixed feelings of happiness and horror, silliness and tragedy. If you’ve never seen the play, or missed the excellent 2010 production starring Al Pacino, then you might want to see it before the weekend is over. Perhaps in a smaller venue it would have greater impact. But the Rose is a barn: fine for music, dance and the recent Noh Theatre engagement, but a sucking vacuum for plays. (The visuals aren’t helped by a drab design, murky onstage lights and the decision to keep house lights on low. To simulate the open-air Globe?) Should you have tickets, but not in the first 10 rows, make like you’re at the opera and bring binoculars. I would in particular give this advice to GoT fans making the Shakespeare crossover, assuming such creatures exist.
Follow David Cote on Twitter: @davidcote