This year the Globe has titled their summer season as ‘Justice & Mercy’: a theme which explores the flaws and fortes of the judicial system against individual, moral judgement throughout Shakespeare’s plays. With that in mind, what better way to start off this season than The Merchant of Venice with its pounds of flesh and qualities of mercy? Certainly, The Merchant of Venice is one of Shakespeare’s most ambiguous plays on a moral front; what with the readings of Shylock and Antisemitism, the supposed amorality of the protagonists, the unfair trial of Act IV, and even its own genre as a comedy. Jonathan Munby plays his production traditional and straight, not obsessing over one theme of the lay but instead allowing the controversies of the text direct themselves – albeit under a sympathetic light of the story.
This light shines brightest on Jonathan Pryce as plays perhaps one of Merchant’s most iconic characters Shylock. On the one hand, Pryce does not reject the villainy of the character, he holds disdain for the rest of the cast, and is truly callous in his casual preparation of his rival Antonio’s death as he sharpens a knife on his boot and takes out a scale to weigh his pound of flesh. Yet despite this sheer villainy, the audience can’t help but feel anguish and sympathise with Shylock as he suffers abuse at the hands of the Christians. In the great speech ‘Hath not a Jew eyes’, Salerio (Brian Martin) spits in Shylock’s face: it’s a powerful moment in the play, like many others, which make it hard not to feel the tremendous weight Pryce brings. Likewise, the heroes of our play frolic and jest as they like only to commit these bigoted acts towards other characters like Shylock. By telling the story straight, Munby and his cast manage to add a further moral and emotional depth to the story, as the characters dance between good and evil.
The rest of the cast also should be given special note, especially Stefan Adegbola’s Launcelot Gobbo whose opening monologue and comic routine was welcome with applause from the audience. For a clown I thought Gobbo was lesser than the likes of Touchstone and Feste. I am happy to say Adegbola proves me very wrong in what is the best Shakespearean Fool I have seen on stage. David Sturzaker and Dorothea Myer-Bennet also deserve praise as Gratiano and Nerissa as their chemistry and asides often steal scenes. There is also a wonderfully nuanced performance from Pryce’s daughter Phoebe as Jessica who provides a subtle tragic arc for what is supposedly a minor character. The leads of Bassiano (Daniel Lapaine) and Portia (Rachel Pickup) are solid from in their roles, but Munby does not focus on them and thus both protagonists are slightly left behind in the first act. Fortunately the second act allows the two to stretch their theatrical muscles which puts them both more in the Shakespearean spotlight – something these characters (and actors) deserve.
The stage itself is set minimally as most Globe productions are (an understandable decision since the theatre is a backdrop in itself), but distinguishes the two locations of Venice and Belmont effectively with the use of a golden gauze for Portia’s palace. These changes and endings to the scenes are joined by Jules Maxwell’s Venetian music, which anchors the production further into a traditional setting.
A lovely addition is that of the addition of the opening and closing scenes: the festivity of Venetians who attack Shylock and Tubal; and Jessica’s lament as her father is baptized in front of the audience to a haunting choir. Both scenes bookend the play and provide a tragic undertone for the light ending, whilst providing closure for Shylock. With the opening and closing focusing so much on the infamous Jewish character, it is clear Munby shifts he protagonist of this play for his interpretation.
Munby’s Merchant is wonderfully ambiguous like the text in its straightforward reading of the play, albeit with a slight shift of protagonist from Bassiano and Portia to Shylock. It’s clear that the entire production epitomizes the ideas of justice and mercy that the Globe are focusing on, and serves as an excellent start to what seems to be an already marvelous season.