The Kennedy Center is an institution, inspiring awe from the moment you walk in the door. You get to your seat and the stage is an Elizabethan hall, with light filtering through the latticework of the walls, and smoke and dust billowing around the expanse.
Today, The Merchant of Venice is affectionately termed one of Shakespeare’s problem plays. However, in Shakespeare’s time it was billed as a comedy. Set in Venice, it tells the story of Bassanio, who is in love with Portia. However, he does not have the sufficient funds to woo the lady. He then asks for a loan of Shylock, a Jew in an Anti-Semitic Italy, using his merchant friend Antonio’s, credit. However, when Antonio’s ships fail to return to harbor, he is indebted to Shylock for a pound of flesh.
If a Shakespeare done well is like a good meal, then a production from the Globe is ambrosia.
The play brings up a myriad of problems that each production has to address and for that reason is always interesting to see. Is Shylock a villain? Is the law above God? What is the difference between a Jew and a Christian?
Surprisingly, Director and Globe veteran Jonathan Munby places the question of Shylock’s villainy in its sincerest terms. Each character is not a placeholder for every label, they are individuals, with faults. We see Portia’s subtle racism but still hope that she ends up happy with Bassanio. The result is a play that struggles with its own identity, makes a valiant effort throughout to remain a comedy but ultimately fails.
Johnathan Pryce, most famous for playing Governor Weatherby Swann in The Pirates of the Carribean franchise and more recently as The High Sparrow in Game of Thrones, plays Shakespeare’s famous Jew. His Shylock is not tragic nor is he the villain, but human. His “Hath not a Jew eyes” speech is not a tearful plea for acceptance so much as it is a genuine question. He is an old man, proud of his heritage and longing for the right to live without prejudice. His bond then turns from an unlikely joke to an act of uncivil disobedience, representing all Jews. Pryce is soft spoken and sympathetic throughout, and his hyperbolic “My Ducats” scene garnered a few laughs from the audience, his hatred of Antonio is less pointed, a more exhausted kind of bitterness then a fiery hate.
Rachel Pickup is equally brilliant as Portia in her high tower of Belmont, and as Portia in disguise. The production highlighted Portia’s racism and classism, but again, always in a way that did not make her unsympathetic, just more rounded. She excels in the suitor naming scene adding a youthful vibrancy to Portia.
Pryce’s daughter Phoebe Pryce plays Jessica, and hers is the plot that tears the play from its comedic path. She adds a complexity to a character that is often overlooked in this play.
A surprise scene stealer is Stefan Agdebola as Launcelot Gobbo. His “Conscience vs. Fiend” monologue is where the play plants itself firmly in its comedic identity. Likewise, any scene with Gratiano and Nerissa, Joylon Coy and Dorothea Myer Bennett, respectfully, is a crowd pleaser.
Dominic Mafham plays the eponymous Merchant, Antonio. Mafham does not disguise Antonio’s hatred for Shylock, bullying him like schoolchild in their first scene. However, he gains the audience’s sympathy back in his affection for Bassanio, played by the equally talented Dan Fredenburgh. Their relationship is explored and expounded upon in subtle ways throughout the play. Fredenburgh’s Bassanio is a wiser, more rational Bassanio than usual. He is alternately funny and sympathetic in the courtroom scene.
Mike Britton served as the Designer for this visually striking play. The costumes were uniquely detailed, Elizabethan pieces, Portia appears to Bassanio, and then in real life in a gold designed Gown, and Bassanio comes to her in silver. The melancholy Antonio appears in black. Shylock’s clothes are a little outdated, more worn then the costumes of the others, wrinkled. The set places us squarely in the world of the Elizabethan Theatre, with minimal set changes. A sheer curtain is all that distinguishes Portia’s palace from the taverns of Venice, and the change of light, designed by Oliver Fenwick, denotes the changing of the time.
The show featured gorgeous original music, which played through the latticework of the stage’s walls. Jules Maxwell composed the Elizabethan court songs for the production, beautifully directed by Jeremy Avis. The music denoted the central theme of spirituality in this play, and featured phenomenal musicians and vocalists: Jeremy Avis, as a percussionist and a vocalist, Harry Napier as cellist and vocalist, Dai Pritchard on the bass and regular clarinet, and Lea Cornwaithe, as vocalist and percussionist.
If a Shakespeare done well is like a good meal, then a production from the Globe is ambrosia. If it were a polished stone, the Globe’s production would be diamond. This particular production would be a diamond that someone you love gave you, and then someone else stole from you, it’s absence will always leave an uncomfortable but familiar weight in your heart. As Portia would say, this play “makes a swan like end, fading into music.”
Advisory: Adult themes.
Running Time: Approximately two hours and 45 minutes with one 15 minute intermission.
The Merchant of Venice runs from Tuesday, July 27 to Saturday July 30. Showtimes are at 7:30pm, with one matinee at 1:30pm on Saturday at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater – 2700 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call (202) 467-4600, or purchase them online.