Monday, June 15, 2015

A Moor and Two Jews: Shakespeare and Marlowe in Stratford and London

Phoebe Pryce and Jonathan Pryce in The Merchant of Venice. (Photo: Tristram Kenton)

Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice is a romantic comedy in which Shylock, the Jewish moneylender who goes to court to collect his pound of flesh from the bankrupt merchant Antonio, is merely the obstacle the hero and heroine must overcome in order to get to their deserved happy ending. He vanishes from the play at the end of the fourth act, so that the entirety of the fifth can concentrate on the trick Portia and her maid Nerissa play on their new husbands, Bassanio and Gratiano, getting them to give away the rings that were their brides’ special gifts to the supposed young judge who rescued Bassanio and his law clerk (really the two women dressed in men’s clothing). The ingenious legal trick Portia employs to release Antonio from his bond to Shylock is necessary to ensure Bassanio’s and Portia’s marital happiness because Bassanio entered into that unholy agreement with the moneylender in order to bankroll Bassanio’s courtship of Portia. Once the case is over, frivolity can resume. And though high school English classes still, apparently, teach The Merchant as a serious drama about anti-Semitism rather than an example of it – just as they did when I was in high school in the sixties – the fact is that, as directors have proven in productions since the Holocaust made the play at least a bone of contention, the only way to fix the problem in it is to rewrite it. I’ve seen three Merchants that did so brilliantly. In the famous Jonathan Miller production from 1970 (televised in 1973), with Laurence Olivier as Shylock and Joan Plowright as Portia, Shylock is presented as a tragic hero; Miller cut the lines that put him in an unflattering light, like the aside that includes his feeling about Antonio, “I hate him for he is a Christian.” Both Trevor Nunn’s 1999 version at the National Theatre, set in the Fascist 1930s, with Henry Goodman as Shylock and the Broadway production Al Pacino starred in, under Daniel Sullivan, in 2010, in different ways, sketched a landscape of such racial hatred that Shylock’s conduct toward Antonio seemed like a lamentable but completely understandable response to his own treatment at the hands of Christians. (The young men Antonio hangs out with in Nunn’s version are little more than privileged thugs.)

Jonathan Pryce gives an intelligent, often tender performance as Shylock in a new production at Shakespeare’s Globe, directed by Jonathan Munby, that does a more than adequate job of rearranging the context so that Shylock isn’t just a villain who gets what he deserves. What he gets in the play, when his suit collapses under Portia’s scrutiny, is poverty – half his goods go to Antonio (Dominic Mafham), the other half to Lorenzo (Ben Lamb), the Christian who has eloped with his Shylock’s daughter Jessica (played by Pryce’s daughter Phoebe Pryce) – and a forced conversion to Christianity. (Jessica has already converted to marry Lorenzo.) Munby stages a baptism scene, in which Pryce’s Shylock cringes as the priest pours holy water over his head; meanwhile Jessica, reading the letter from her father Portia has handed her, intones a Hebrew prayer in counterpoint to the Latin one everyone else on stage is singing (and which she, too, finally joins). She’s the last person on stage as the lights go down. Munby was obviously thinking of the way Miller ended his Merchant, with Jessica (Louise Purnell) alone reading the letter while in the background we hear the Mourner’s Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead, which is also recited by Orthodox Jews when a son or daughter marries out of the faith.

This Merchant is much better than some of the Globe shows I’ve seen, though it contains the usual attenuated audience-pandering (as Launcelot Gobbo, the clownish servant, Stefan Adegbola brings members of the audience up on stage to play the devil and the angel who battle over his conscience) that usually makes me feel as if I were back in summer camp. This is one of the Globe’s ploys supposedly to replicate original performance practices, but (a) if that’s the way comedy was played at the original Globe, then I’m grateful we have other options in contemporary Shakespeare performances and (b) technology and modern comforts have moved us so far past the experience of sixteenth and seventeenth-century theatregoers that the notion that we’re getting anywhere close to what they saw is patently ridiculous. Slender, swanlike Rachel Pickup – daughter of the distinguished actor Ronald Pickup – deftly manages the romantic-comedy scenes, like the ones involving the suitors who, according to the terms of her dead father’s will, have to undergo a test to determine their eligibility to marry her, and she and her Nerissa, Dorothea Myer-Bennett, have an easy, bantering relationship. The only scene Pickup doesn’t handle particularly well is the trial episode, but that’s the worst scene in the play. Munby’s staging here is symmetrical and static, with most of the actors glued to their spots like figures in a canvas, and Mafham’s Antonio is reduced to melodrama: terrified weeping as his doom advances and then to hysterical scriptural recitations in Latin. When he’s called to present his breast to his pursuer, a bar lowers from the flies and he’s harnessed to it, his arms outstretched like those of Christ on the cross, and we get the point: that his execution is being staged by the Christian Venetian court so that it looks like the Jews are slaughtering Christ yet once more. The scene is so heavy-handed that it stops the play cold, which is presumably what Munby wanted so that no one would miss the tonal shift.

Of the two Shakespeare plays made unpalatable for modern audiences by the prejudices of his time, I guess I’d rather watch The Merchant of Venice than The Taming of the Shrew because there’s more going on in it. (In my experience only the Propeller Theatre Company, under Edward Hall’s direction, has ever succeeded in addressing the misogyny in Shrew in a way that made the production worth viewing.) But I wouldn’t mind it if directors retired it, at least for a while. The battle has to be fought anew every time it gets revived, and when it doesn’t work the results tend to be more irritating than with other failed Shakespeares – as in the Canadian Stratford Festival version of a few years back, set so close to the Holocaust that you wondered how a Jew could even get a court date.

Lanre Malaolu and Jasper Britton in The Jew of Malta. (Photo: Tristram Kenton)

The Globe production is one of two Merchants playing this season; there’s another by the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford, running in repertory with Christopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta. I skipped it but I did see the Marlowe, a rabid melodrama in which the conduct of the Jewish anti-hero, Barabas, is so nutty and unbridled that the play is almost never revived. The director, Justin Audibert, has tried to rescue it by setting up Barabas (Jasper Britton) as a sympathetic figure. In a prologue, we see him as a poor man with his baby daughter in his arms, singing her a lullaby. Then, some fifteen or twenty years on, after he’s made himself the richest man in Malta, we see him victimized by the Christian community. The governor, Ferneze (Steven Pacey, acting with his teeth), taxes the rich Jews of Malta out of half their fortunes to make up ten years’ back tribute to the Turks; when Barabas objects, Ferneze takes the other half and turns Barabas’s house into a convent. That’s all in Marlowe’s script, but in this production he’s also beaten and spat upon repeatedly. (Spittle is practically a motif of this production.)

It’s easier to make Shylock into a victim than Barabas, whose behavior is simply outrageous and whom Marlowe has presented in the form of a traditional Vice figure out of the Medieval morality plays. He’s hidden gold from the Governor under a board in his house, so when it passes out of his hands, he gets his daughter Abigail (Catrin Stewart) to pretend to be a willing convert and aspiring novice so she can recover it. Then he gets his revenge on Ferneze by manipulating his son Lodowick (Andy Apollo) and his best friend Mathias (Colin Ryan) into a duel over Abigail, now safely back at home after her stint in the nunnery. They two young men kill each other, and Abigail, learning of her father’s part in their fates, is so appalled that she returns to the convent, as a committed convert this time. In a fit of pique, Barabas, with the help of his Turkish slave Ithamore (Lanre Malaolu), poisons the whole convent. And that’s just the first half.

Audibert’s notion is to underscore the awfulness of the other characters on the stage so that Barabas’s evil deeds don’t set him apart in this world. But it doesn’t work, because even given Marlowe’s cynicism (he begins the play with a speech by Machiavel, played by Simon Hedger, who comes from beyond the grave to promote his view of humanity) and the self-serving machinations of Ferneze, Barabas’s villainy is an extreme case. To Ithamore, who turns out to be a kindred spirit – or at least a psychopath in training – he confesses countless murderous acts, including the poisoning of wells, an allusion to the assumption, nurtured during the Middle Ages, that this was a Jewish practice that caused the plague. In the RSC production no one on stage is palatable. But you can see that Marlowe meant to present Abigail’s second, genuine retreat to the nunnery as evidence of her pureness of heart – she confesses her father’s crimes to a friar and her last words are, “I die a Christian” – and even that he intended the two young men as hot-headed youths inflamed by their love for Abigail and thus the perfect pawns for Barabas’s vengeance. (Audibert wants us to see their attraction to her as lust, and makes Lodowick less appealing by having him administer the most severe of Barabas’s beatings.)

It’s a ridiculous play, quite apart from its unsavory content, and no one ever needs to produce it again; in all probability, no one will during my lifetime. The RSC mounting is cartoonish, but not especially entertaining. For one thing, the acting is mostly dreadful, with Stewart, Malaolu and Ryan the main culprits. Both Malolu and Ryan are so easily recognizable than when, within minutes of their characters’ demises, they were recruited as Turkish extras in turbans, I had to stifle my giggles. Lily Arnold has fun with those outré Turkish outfits; overall the costumes are more entertaining than the show.

Hugh Quarshie, with Lucian Msamati, in Othello. (Photo: Donald Cooper)

No doubt one of the reasons it’s so hard to accept the anti-Semitism of The Merchant of Venice is that Shakespeare created the first great black protagonist in the theatre, Othello. (Similarly, the inspiriting, truly equal partnerships of men and women in As You Like It and Much Ado About Nothing make you wonder what he could have been thinking when he wrote The Taming of the Shrew.) Stratford’s season also includes a very fine Othello – placed, like the one Nicholas Hytner directed for the National Theatre two years ago, in a contemporary military setting – featuring Hugh Quarshie as the Moor and Lucian Msamati as Iago. Msamati is only the second black actor I’ve seen play the role – a phenomenal young André Braugher was the first, at the Shakespeare Theater in D.C., twenty-five years ago – and the casting automatically defers on Othello’s decision to make a white man, Cassio (Jacob Fortune-Lloyd), his lieutenant over Iago an aura of political pragmatism as well as intensifying Iago’s resentment. Iago’s motivation for destroying Othello is mysterious in Shakespeare’s text, so every actor who approaches the role has to determine it for himself. In this production, directed by Iobal Khan, the motive has to do with race but it’s very complicated: it seems to be as much connected with the anger of an African over the political success of a Moor as with a sense of betrayal over one black man’s selection of a white man for promotion over another black man. In the scene after the Venetians’ victory in Cyprus where Iago encourages Cassio to drink, knowing that liquor makes him bellicose, Msamati sings an African ballad, while Cassio and Montano (David Ajao), the governor of Cyprus, engage in a rap battle in which banter of a racial nature turns ugly.

This episode is intriguing, though Khan hasn’t quite worked out the ideas about race that he’s playing with in this production; they’re more suggestive than clear. Iago’s wife Emilia, who is gentlewoman to Othello’s white bride Desdemona (Joanna Vanderham), is played by an Indian actress, Ayesha Darker, but what resonates in their relationship isn’t specifically race-related. One of the best moments in the show is the one where Emilia hands over to Iago the handkerchief, Othello’s first gift to Desdemona, that Iago has asked her to pocket for him, having no idea how nefarious his plans are for it. (He will use it as rigged evidence to prove to Othello that his innocent wife has been unfaithful to him.) In this version, it’s clear that Emilia offers it as a kind of love token to win back the love of a husband she feels has neglected her. Then she kisses him, and when he responds coldly she turns away in humiliation (that he has evidently lost his desire for her) and shame (that she has betrayed her mistress, and for nothing).

This Othello is beautifully staged and the set and lighting (by Ciaran Bagnall) are superb, though Fotini Dimou’s costumes for the women, including Nadia Albina as the Duke of Venice, seem more conceptual than convincing, and I didn’t get the concept. Not everything in the production works. There’s a scene where Iago tortures a captive under Othello’s watchful eye that feels extraneous until you realize it’s there to set up Khan’s take on the great Othello-Iago confrontation where Othello demands that Iago “prove my love a whore.” I’ve seen other Othellos where Othello threatens Iago with physical harm in this scene – Avery Brooks lifted a much smaller André Braugher right off the ground – but not one in which he actually tortures Iago, and it didn’t work for me: I just don’t buy Othello as a torturer. Vanderham plays Desdemona as a sheltered rich girl with a vocal affect, a choice that’s merely distracting in the first half, though in the second, when Othello knocks her down in public and “bewhores” her in private, her naiveté – the notion that, raised by a doting, indulgent father and worshipped until now by her husband, she is, in her own words, “a child to chiding” – deepens the shock at Othello’s turning on her without warning or cause. Vanderham is so much better in the second half that I rooted for her to pull off the great “willow” scene with Emilia, but I’m afraid she doesn’t.

But, as Othello. Quarshie has an imperial quality and tremendous warmth, and Msamati gives a remarkably imaginative performance as Iago. Dharker, Fortune-Lloyd and James Corrigan, who plays Roderigo comically, all contribute strong performances. Like all good productions of the play, Khan’s Othello wraps itself around you and is impossible to shake off afterwards.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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