Jonathan Munby’s clear-headed production of The Merchant of Venice treads a fine line between solid and sparkling: there’s no flashy concept, but there are flashes of directorial insight.
Staged simply against a slightly scorched wooden set, with traditional costumes and music, the show is very Globe-ish – plenty of playing up to the groundlings, finding bawdy humour in the script or between the lines; Ben Lamb as a crudely punning Lorenzo and the delightfully expressive Dorothea Myer-Bennett as his silently scornful beloved Nerissa are particularly adept at this.
The casket scenes are also inflated to the maximum cartoon caricature, with dim-witted suitors mincing and sword-waving about the stage; hilarious or tedious depending on your sense of humour. Later in the play, it is Portia and Nerissa who take the floor, and the near-closing scene where they run rings around their ring-losing husbands is a finely-tuned and fizzing comic joy. Rachel Pickup presents an impressively in-control Portia, moving from haughty dismisser of would-be suitors to cool courtroom customer to slick operator of her own marriage. Bassiano doesn’t stand a chance…
But Munby knows how to balance the comedy with tragedy. There’s no doubt that the society Jonathan Pryce’s beleaguered Shylock exists in is anti-semitic; the hatred is literally spat in his face. Repeatedly. And while Shylock’s glee at demanding his pound of flesh is always horrible, Pryce’s crumpled, broken grief when told he must convert to Christianity is pitiable.
Munby’s clever final move is to stage, with solemn and dismaying pomp, Shylock’s baptism; instead of ending on happy reunited lovers, we see a man being forced to falsify his faith. His daughter Jessica suffers anti-semitism too: even after her marriage, she remains an outsider in courtly society, and Munby strengthens this interpretation by concluding with her sat downstage, alone, in a puddle of grief at her father’s fate. It’s a vicious reminder that some characters have paid higher prices than others for their happy ending.
To 7 June; shakespearesglobe.com