Jonathan Pryce makes a strong case for Shylock’s infamous demand for a pound of flesh in Shakespeare’s Globe‘s gorgeously stylized production of “The Merchant of Venice.” But in order to pull off this tricky adjustment to the most reviled Jewish character in dramatic literature, director Jonathan Munby had to flip the customary dynamic and turn Shylock’s Christian adversaries into heartless fiends. The stagecraft is so stunning, and the acting so dazzling, you might think the play had actually been written this way.
Pryce is such an on-demand actor in film and TV roles (from the bewigged Governor Swann in the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies to High Sparrow in “Game of Thrones”), it’s a rare treat to catch him at this year’s Lincoln Center Festival in his original and most natural metier as a stage actor par excellence. Here, he’s giving a towering performance as Shylock, turning one of Shakespeare’s most vilified characters into a tragic figure deserving of compassion.
The Welsh actor delivers Shakespeare’s immortal lines on the common humanity of all mankind — “Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions?” — with deeply, honestly felt emotion. Although Shylock is the stern, overly protective patriarch with his daughter, Jessica (played with exquisite sensibility by Pryce’s own daughter, Phoebe Pryce), his grief when she elopes with her Christian lover is pitiful. And at the end of his trials, when Antonio makes the ultimate demand that this deeply religious Jew renounce his religion and embrace Christianity, the anguish and despair on Pryce’s face is devastating.
Because this Shylock has more pride and dignity than any we’ve seen, his rage at being mocked, spat upon, and otherwise humiliated by the merchant Antonio (Domenic Mafham) feels entirely righteous. The problem, of course, is that Antonio, who is elsewhere portrayed as the kindest and most generous of men, must mutate into a snarling, sneering, anti-Semitic beast. Well, so be it. Mafham, a Royal Shakespeare Company veteran with abundant credits, deals with that jarring character incongruity without breaking a sweat.
Munby assists in bringing out such unorthodox character nuances with copious bits of stage business. Even as he’s negotiating with Shylock for a large loan, Antonio snatches the moneylender’s prayer book and callously drops it to the floor. He spits a fat glob of phlegm onto the front of his cloak. And when the deal is made and sealed with the traditional handshake, he ostentatiously wipes his hand of Shylock’s touch.
The strength of this production owes much to its seductive visual effects. Enhanced by Oliver Fenwick’s shadowy lighting, Mike Britton’s austere black set lends a sinister backdrop for the opulent Renaissance costumes and Commedia dell’arte carnival masks. Lucy Hind’s stately choreographic movements are beautiful, but quite chilling when executed by tall men in black cloaks.
The extraordinary music composed by Jules Maxwell soars through the spacious settings to ominous effect. More medieval than Renaissance, these severely liturgical strains would seem more suitable to the cavernous interiors of medieval monasteries and cathedrals than on the lively streets of Venice in carnival season. But the sonorous sounds are just the ticket for the dark mood of this revisionist production.
Munby reserves his most theatrical effects for the dramatic (if textually suspect) moment when Antonio enthusiastically takes his vengeance on Shylock, undone in the trial scene by the keen wit and passionate oratory of Portia, a dynamic heroine in Rachel Pickup’s animated performance. With full religious pomp, a procession of priests clad in ecclesiastical white vestments conduct portions of the Catholic Mass in high Latin while stripping Shylock of his own religious garb and his Jewish identity. Although this one last piece of stagecraft is totally over the top, submitting this devout Jew to a Catholic baptism gives Pryce one last chance to bare Shylock’s tragic soul while daughter Phoebe’s Jessica sings a keening song of death and loss that cuts like a knife to the heart.