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Review, Globe Theatre’s Merchant of Venice (****)

The Globe Theatre’s production of The Merchant of Venice is not yet available for streaming. We’ll let you know when that changes.
Tickets for the production at The Globe Theatre are available at: The Globe Ticket Office

Our Bottom Line:

All in all, a really fantastic evening’s entertainment, funny, moving and thought-provoking, and an excellent production of a tricky and somewhat controversial play. If you’re in London while this season lasts, I highly recommend trying to get a ticket. When it appears on Globe Player, as I’m sure it will, it’s definitely worth a watch.

Our Review (****)

Last Friday afternoon I took a train down from Berwick-upon-Tweed to London Kings Cross, before heading to the Globe theatre in the evening for their production of The Merchant of Venice, starring Jonathan Pryce as Shylock. The last time I went down to London for a Globe production was in 2012 to see Twelfth Night, and it wasn’t quite what I had expected. I had a very set idea of how that play should work, having recently spent months rehearsing and performing it, and knew nothing of the typical style of Globe productions- it probably also threw me to watch my part being played by a man in that all-male production. This time, having seen and reviewed around half a dozen shows from the Globe Player in the last few weeks, I was far better prepared. Having women playing the women’s parts and the fact that I didn’t know the play well so had no set idea of how it should be done probably helped too.

Macbeth-and-audience.jpg” data-rel=”prettyPhoto[this_page]” title=””>Globe Macbeth and audienceFrom the moment you arrive at the theatre, there really is something special about the whole experience. The busyness and excitement of the massing audience, photos all around of years’ worth of Globe Shakespeare productions, even a giant birthday card in the doorway for Shakespeare with hundreds of signatures. Walking through the wooden doors into the theatre itself, you emerge in what feels like a little slice of Elizabethan England. Our seats were on the bottom row, and unfortunately near a door, so on the many inexplicable occasions when people decided they didn’t fancy watching this bit of the play, there was the irritating sound of scuffling and the door opening and closing. The stage was extended slightly, with a narrow staircase leading down into the audience on either side, but there were no long platforms leading into the audience as we sometimes see at Globe shows. The back of the performance space was covered with black panelling, with a kind of worn gold showing through. The front pillars, too, were worn black rather than their usual marbled red, and there was an orangey gossamer curtain which could be pulled forward during certain scenes, particularly Portia’s, and drawn back to display the paneling in others.

When most of the audience was in place, music began to play, with singing (presumably in Italian) and various performers bounded on stage and began to carouse. The costumes were wonderful, typically Elizabethan, and all in black and rich, bright red. Everyone wore Venetian style masks too, presumably as part of the masque that Launcelot later mentions which so horrifies Shylock. Three figures in white and gold then appeared: a man and woman and one dressed as Cupid, to add to the revelry. However, all of this is brought to an abrupt halt as two men with red caps and yellow circles on their robes join the scene. Immediately everyone freezes and all eyes turn to them. One of them is pushed over by a young man and they are spat at, before managing to make their way past this group that until a moment ago seemed to be having innocent fun. Right from the beginning of the production, this sets us up for a show that contrasts the lighthearted revelry and fun of the young Christian people of Venice, with the cruel mistreatment and racism towards Shylock and his Jewish friend Tubal.

This difficult contrast continues throughout the play, as characters who we want to like, and who seem perfectly likeable amongst their own people, show unforgivable behaviour towards Shylock. There was, nevertheless, some wonderful comedy in this show, particularly provided by Launcelot Gobbo. His first monologue in particular had the entire audience in hysterics, as a member of the audience was dragged from one side to demonstrate “the fiend” telling him to run away from his master, with Launcelot grabbing her jaw and moving it up and down like a puppet. Another audience member from the other side was then pulled onstage as his “conscience”, telling him to stay with Shylock. This particular conscience was an enthusiastic and rather flirty female of around 60, who got somewhat carried away in her role, miming pointing sternly at him when instructing him, and looking very disappointed that she didn’t get to slap him on the bottom as the fiend was made to do. Eventually he has to turn to his conscience and tell her sternly “Stop.” The rest of the audience were then called upon to be the voices of the fiend and the conscience, shouting more and more quickly “Budge! Budge not! Budge! Budge not! Budge! Budge not!” until it becomes too much for poor Launcelot.

The scenes with the two Princes who try to win Portia’s hand in marriage were also very funny, with the Prince of Morocco attempting to impress with

Portia and the Prince of Arragon Photo: Manuel Harlan

Portia and the Prince of Arragon
Photo: Manuel Harlan

his martial arts skills and rather scarily twirling around his scimitar and the Prince of Arragon looking and sounding like something straight out of a Monty Python sketch. Rachel Pickup was excellent as Portia, giving just enough of a hint of self-obsession to the character, with Dorothea Myer-Bennett as her rather more practical and down-to-earth maid, Nerissa. The two were a great double act, banding together to mock and test the men in their lives with wit and intelligence. They weren’t particularly convincing men in the court scene, but Shakespeare’s women dressed as men rarely are, and this does add to the foolishness of Bassanio and Gratiano in not recognising their wives. The one weak spot in Pickup’s performance, for me, was the “Quality of mercy” speech. This speech, like a few others in Shakespeare, is so ingrained into the minds of most people in Britain (at least those likely to go to a performance of The Merchant of Venice) that every actress performing it has a very difficult task in coining it for the first time, making it sound like something being said on the spur of the moment, rather than a premeditated speech. And to me, Pickup just didn’t quite manage it. Perhaps if Shylock had pushed her harder, shown himself to be unmoved by her words and therefore forced her to speak more passionately, it would have been there; but he didn’t, and it wasn’t quite.

Shylock himself, played by Jonathan Pryce, was a physically rather weak old man, who struggled to bend over to pick up his book as it was thrown to the ground, and to get down the stairs as he left the stage for the last time. We got the sense that this was a tired Shylock, beaten and abused, almost broken but still managing to hold up a defiant front and showing occasional flashes of passion and anger. Of course, the most famous of these moments is his “Hath not a Jew eyes” speech, probably as well-known and almost as difficult as Portia’s. Particularly powerful was the moment when one of the

Portia and Nerissa

Portia and Nerissa Photo: Manuel Harlan

young men spat on Shylock on the line “I am a Jew,” during this most eloquent call for acceptance and acknowledgment as a fellow, equal human being. Some parts of the speech perhaps didn’t quite have the weight that they sometimes can, but nevertheless it was overall an excellent Shylock. His agonised cries in the trial when he was told he must convert to Christianity were painful to hear; not only has he lost his one chance at revenge, his daughter, and most of his money, he must now renounce his faith, a vital part of himself.

At the end of the play, after all the couples have forgiven one another and it all seems to end happily, another scene with no dialogue has been added. Shylock, now in just a white nightshirt, walks to the very front of the centre of the stage, and is baptised, with robed, chanting Christians looking on.

Jessica and Shylock Photo: Manuel Harlan

Jessica and Shylock
Photo: Manuel Harlan

Just before this, when his daughter, Jessica (played by Pryce’s own daughter Phoebe, who is excellent throughout the production) hears of his fate, it is made clear that whatever her previous actions, she still deeply loves her father and understands how devastating this is for him. She goes to the front of the stage and begins a harsh, keening song, which, though we can’t understand the words, is truly haunting. This song carries on as his mocking baptism is carried out, with three large goblets of water being poured over his head and as he chokes out the word “Amen”. Although certainly a less cheerful way to end the play, I was very glad that this scene was added. Without it, Shylock, by far the most interesting and compelling character in the whole play, disappears after Act 4 Scene 1 and is never seen again. This seemed like a much more fitting end to the story than the happy couples.

Uniquely, for a Globe show, and to my great disappointment, there was no dance at the end of this production, just regular bows. Perhaps they felt it would ruin the sombre mood; although that didn’t prevent it in Othello and Romeo and Juliet. All in all, a really fantastic evening’s entertainment, funny, moving and thought-provoking, and an excellent production of a tricky and somewhat controversial play. If you’re in London while this season lasts, I highly recommend trying to get a ticket (just avoid anywhere near the doors or a school group!) and when it appears on Globe Player, as I’m sure it will, it’s definitely worth a watch.

Caitlin Morris,
Reviewer,
Players-Shakespeare.com
admin@players-shakespeare.com

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