It’s that time again. The Globe is back with its summer season. The tourists and the school groups, the canoodling dates and the families; it is undeniably the broadest church on London’s theatre scene. This year opens with a pitch-perfect production of Merchant of Venice, in which Jonathan Pryce delivers a Shylock of immense complexity.
From the chaotic opening, a Venetian masquerade ball, to the reworked ending, in which Shylock is gravely baptised; the production keeps up the energy, and laughter that you expect from a Globe performance, while at the same time probing the depths of the text.
The Merchant of Venice is one of the more difficult plays, and Shylock one of the more ambiguous characters. Is he an amoral, vengeful miser or an oppressed, dishonoured Father, who the law does not represent? And were the frequent and unremitting anti-Semitic outbursts intended for the enjoyment or consternation of audiences?
Jonathan Munby’s production is a subtle interpretation that does not provide answers to these questions, but revels in the ambiguities of the text. We see that the young Christians are brutish and atrocious, but they are also clearly our heroes. We are induced to will them on; but feel bad about doing so. Likewise Pryce’s Shylock is an all-encompassing character; entirely believable, entirely sympathetic, sorrowful and affecting, yet malevolent, and vengeful. His anguish at his conversion is a chilling moment, in which the audience’s sharp intake of breath is clearly heard.
The accompanying love story of Portia and Antonio, although in the text the weaker of the two narratives, is brought to life in typical Globe fashion with some larger than life performances by Portia’s two suitors, the Prince of Morocco and the Prince of Arragon. Christopher Logan’s Prince of Arragon lisps and camps his way around the stage as if we were in Elizabethan London, and although undeniably amusing it is a reminder of the play’s uncomfortable appeal to racial prejudice. Nevertheless, Stefan Adegbola in particular does brilliantly well as Gobbo, making the most out of one of Shakespeare’s more unfunny fools through some excruciating audience participation.
If there was any criticism to be had it is only that Munby’s production is a bit too sensible. It’s an excellent, and trustworthy execution, but there aren’t any flashes of brilliance; anything that makes you sit up in awe. It’s the production you’d point to as an exemplar; but not as the sublime version. As criticisms go though of course it’s not a big one; and this particular Merchant of Venice is a cracking opening to the start of the Globe’s summer season.
The Merchant of Venice at Shakespeare’s Globe until 17th June 2015. For more information and tickets visit the website.