Review: The Merchant of Venice

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I have strong emotional ties to ’The Merchant of Venice’. It was the first Shakespearean play in which I performed. Hearing Portia’s infamous ‘quality of mercy’ speech, even ten years later, takes me back to the moment when I first spoke Shakespeare’s words and learned to love them.

Later, at university, I became fascinated with the generic problems posed by the play. It is full of contradictions, with an intricate blend of comedy and tragedy that flounders in the wrong hands. This production nails it.

The chief attraction of Jonathan Munby’s production is the meta casting of Jonathan Pryce and his daughter Phoebe as Shylock and Jessica. Thankfully, this turns out to be more than a gimmicky choice to draw the crowds, with two powerhouse performances silencing any whispers of nepotism. Their complex relationship becomes the axis on which the play turns.

Phoebe Pryce plays Jessica as a giddy girl in love, eager for a new and uncomplicated life away from her father but unprepared for the ways in which her choice will affect them both. Yet, Pryce injects the character with a sweetness that ensures we don’t judge her for fleeing her father’s house under cover of darkness. Her home life is characterised by tension; from her father’s aggressive commands to their violent rows in Yiddish (an effective touch). The production makes it clear that her affection for the servant, Lancelot Gobbo, (a notoriously odd role, but well performed here by Stefan Adegbola) is rooted in her lack of domestic companionship.

Jonathan Pryce’s Shylock is masterfully subtle. His voice stays low, but carries effortlessly around the theatre; his gestures are natural, but deliberate; he is vulnerable and terrifying, damaged and damaging. Insults appear to slide off his calm exterior, but when Antonio grabs his beard in a moment of shocking violence, hatred ripples across his face and we catch a glimpse of a mind seething with notions of vengeance.

Rather than casting a comparatively golden glow over the other characters, Munby’s direction creates a Shylock whose villainy brings out the worst in those around him. Antonio undermines his fine words with violent gestures rooted in bigotry; Bassanio becomes a weak, if amiable, fool, refusing to tackle the potentially complicated longings behind Antonio’s friendship; even Portia, normally spotless, revels a little too maliciously in the Jew’s downfall.

It’s not all doom and gloom; Dorothea Myer-Bennett is fabulous as Nerissa, bringing the audience to hysterics with a raised eyebrow here, a sardonic glance there. Portia’s unlucky suitors are equally ridiculous, with the actors milking the self-important speeches for all they’re worth.

Yet, for all the laughs, it is a production characterised by moral ambiguity, unafraid to show you the filth and nastiness that lies beneath the gilded exteriors. The sense of underlying tragedy reaches its climax in the play’s final moments. I won’t spoil it here, but it cuts through the lovers’ jolly reunion with an almost violent force, like a black felt tip scrawl across delicately scented tissue paper. I loved it.

 The Merchant of Venice is on at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre until 7th June 2015

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