The Merchant of Venice at Shakespeare’s Globe
Opening the Globe’s Justice & Mercy-themed season for 2015, and directed by Jonathan Munby, The Merchant of Venice weighs human experience on the scales of binary opposites, see-sawing between joy and pain, loyalty and betrayal, love and hate, victim and bully, powerful and powerless.
Even before the play begins, the audience is primed for a decadent, deceitful culture driven by excess through a masked Venetian ball whose guests are dressed in devilish red and black. However they are snapped out of this wariness as soon as Act One begins with pacy, jovial bonhomie that sweeps all watching along with it. This is Society, and there is palpable warmth and inclusion between the characters, setting the viewer up for the introduction of “one of the most memorable outsiders in all theatre,” – the abused and surly Jew, Shylock.
In this role, Jonathan Pryce has immediate impact: spat upon within the play’s context, yet venerated by two Oliviers and a Tony Award, his face alone highlights how arbitrarily society draws its lines of in and out. Even as a thoroughly dislikable Shakespearean payday loan company employee, and a character who mourns his loss of wealth more than the loss of his daughter, demanding a pound of flesh from a debtor, the audience almost groans with the discomfort of watching him beaten and bullied by Antonio and Bassanio. His words “do we not bleed” rattle with wide-reaching appeal, raising deep underlying questions about why racism exists.
Despite this weighty matter there is much lightness too. Portia and Nerissa’s winning dynamic, Gobbo’s pantomime-worthy interludes, Lorenzo and Jessica’s love-against-the-odds and everything about the Prince of Arragon are particularly well received by the crowd. Shakespeare’s wordplay around “adieu”, “a Jew”, and that which is “due”, still brings delight to the listener.
Munby’s cast scale the heights of dramatic tension and temper it perfectly with comic relief. By the final curtain, the entire theatre oozes with a sense of awkward relief, with the morality of robbing a man of his identity rather than his life hanging over them. An incredible experience.
The Merchant of Venice is on at Shakespeare’s Globe from 23rd April until 7th June 2015, for further information or to book visit here.