One of the more intriguing projects devised as part of the yearlong celebration of the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death was the commission by Hogarth, the British publisher, of eight acclaimed novelists to retell one of Shakespeare’s plays.
The British writer Howard Jacobson chose “The Merchant of Venice.” And in his novel, “Shylock is My Name,” he drops the always contentious character of the Venetian Jewish moneylender into the 21st century, at a cemetery near Manchester, England. And there, Shylock becomes the house-guest of a wealthy art dealer, Simon Strulovitch, a resolutely non-observant Jew whose only tie to tradition comes into play when his daughter falls for a neo-Nazi footballer.
‘THE MERCHANT OF VENICE’ When: Aug. 4 – 14 Where: Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, 800 E. Grand on Navy Pier Tickets: $78 – $88 (sold out) Info: www.chicagoshakes.com Run time: 2 hours and 45 minutes, with one intermission
In an essay about the play, Jacobson noted: “Whatever Shakespeare knew or thought of Jews, the stage is rancid and depleted once the Jew has left it. Not so much on account of any virtue of his own, but because his defeat tastes so bitter, and there is no joy in the company of those who have triumphed over him. Shakespeare never lectures, but he teaches that we needn’t revere a man to pity him: it is enough to recognize the humanity we share.”
Nevertheless, Shakespeare’s Shylock became the classic stereotype of the money-lending Jew (one of the few professions open to Jews) — a stereotype that has persisted for centuries. And arguments still rage as to whether Shakespeare viewed Shylock’s betrayal by his daughter, Jessica, as well as his humiliation and forced conversion to Christianity, as tragic or as justified.
And now comes a visit to Chicago Shakespeare Theater by the Shakespeare’s Globe with its take on “The Merchant of Venice” — a production that began in London, most recently played in New York, and will soon travel to several cities in China before heading to Venice, where a Jewish ghetto was officially established in 1516.
Directed by Jonathan Munby (whose bristling modern take on “Othello” played here this past winter), this “Merchant” production remains true to its original period. But as Munby put it: “Any revival must live in the present tense, even if performed in period clothes, because it is always about the audience receiving the story. And here we are using the past to illuminate the present, fully aware of the irony that we are still having the same debates about prejudice 400 years later.”
“It was the Globe’s artistic director, Dominic Dromgoole, who told me he was planning a season around the theme of mercy, and suggested I do ‘Merchant’,” said Munby. “I was hesitant, but I went back and gave the play a fresh reading, and I found myself intrigued on many levels, especially by the strong oppositions — the light and the dark, the humor and the tragedy, the intense love and hate. And I thought we could look through the lens of the 16th century and have a good debate on what is on our doorstep now — the Charlie Hebdo and Jewish market terrorist attacks in Paris in January, 2015, what feels like the very dangerous rise of the right in Europe, and both anti-Semitism and a fear of immigrants and ‘the other’.”
“What so attracts me to Shakespeare is that he defines people by their humanity in a way that is not sympathetic but empathetic. He makes us understand what drives them. And in a way I began to see how Shylock and Antonio [the title character, with financial interests in shipping], shared certain things. They are of similar ages, both are obsessed with money, and both are outsiders – Shylock a Jew in a hostile Christian world that locked Jews in a ghetto at night, and Antonio, a Christian who was very probably a homosexual in a society where that was unacceptable. And that might explain why the hatred between them was so personal.”
Jonathan Pryce, the Olivier and Tony Award-winning actor of “Miss Saigon” fame (whose long list of credits includes playing Juan Peron in the film version of “Evita,” and more recently, playing High Sparrow as a guest actor on HBO’s “Game of Thrones”), bluntly admits: “I never wanted to play Shylock, and never really liked the play, and immediately said ‘No’ when my agent called me about it. But I read it again, and with the world in turmoil, and racism and fear of immigrants on the rise, its relevance was obvious.”
“I am not Jewish,” said Pryce, “so I turned the character into an Everyman figure — an immigrant, or a man of every minority race who is dealt with in a cruel way. Shylock has learned how to live in a place where he is insulted and spat upon, but this drives him to pursue justice with a certain madness. And I now see the connection between Shylock and the Engineer in ‘Miss Saigon.’ Both men are fleeing oppression in their way.”
This production also offers a unique opportunity for audiences to see Pryce work with his real-life daughter, Phoebe, who plays Jessica. A recent graduate of RADA (the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art), she was, according to Munby “a star of her class, and was absolutely brilliant in her audition and call-back.”
As Pryce relates the story: “I asked Phoebe how she felt about doing this and she said, ‘We only have a couple of scenes together, so it’s fine.’ And I know Jonathan [Munby] wanted to show how Shylock’s control of her – to the point where she calls her house a hell – made her turn against him. We even added a bit of improvisation in Yiddish where she basically says, ‘Get off my back’.”
“Yet later, after marrying a Christian and converting, Jessica begins to realize the error of her ways,” said Munby. “When she says, ‘I am never happy when I hear sweet music,’ you sense she already knows she will not be treated well as an ‘outsider’.”