The Globe’s ‘Justice’ season opens with Shakespeare’s most complex and difficult exploration of the theme, The Merchant of Venice. This production has all the fun trademarks of a Globe production – singing, dancing, and some wonderful audience participation in a scene where Stefan Adegbola’s plucky Launcelot Gobbo drags two unwitting Groundlings onstage. But Jonathan Munby cuts through this jollity mercilessly. He strikes right at the heart of this cruel tragedy of a wronged Jewish moneylender desperate for his dues with subtle yet shattering direction.
Figures in masks dancing to a catchy Italian tune flood the he bare, distressed wood stage, sweeping the audience along in their enthusiasm so wholeheartedly that the two men in red caps quickly and brutally arrested and dragged off stage might go unnoticed. More bawdy fun follows as Gratiano pukes into a bucket and jokes around with the lads, then it’s off to the beautiful Belmont retreat where Portia (a wonderfully sharp Rachel Pickup) twirls about in golden dresses sipping wine and exchanging witticisms with her maid Nerissa (Dorothea Myer-Bennett) about the poor suitors who visit her in an endless, hopeless line. It’s only when Jonathan Pryce’s severe and serious Shylock appears, shouting fast-paced Hebrew at his daughter Jessica (Phoebe Pryce), that the importance of those abused men in red caps is revealed and the extent of the anti-Semitism rife in Venice is exposed.
The first half contains most of the best moments including the brilliant and ridiculous casket scenes in which Scott Karim and Christopher Logan frivolously amp up the racial stereotypes as the Princes of Morocco and Arragon. This is what the play does particularly well. Racism and anti-Semitism are everywhere once you start to look, hidden beneath jokes or slipped past the audience couched in courtroom cleverness, but equally easy to miss or to dismiss with a chuckle. The strength of Munby’s direction is shown in the audience’s reactions: the uneasy comic/tragic balance he strikes with such care has us laughing in all the wrong places. Dominic Mafham’s Antonio’s parting with Bassiano, the man he loves enough to take out an extortionate loan and even to die for, is heartbreaking but also evokes a ripple of uncomfortable laughter.
It is not a perfect production but the debt incurred by its slower parts is repaid double by the remarkable performances. Pryce’s understated Shylock is deeply affecting and his real-life daughter Phoebe matches him scene for scene as a particularly well-observed Jessica. Their haunting final moments raise more goosebumps than even the chilly spring air of opening night.
Once the fireworks and fiestas of the first scene are out of the way, The Merchant of Venice is a fine example of the no-frills, high-impact Shakespeare that the Globe does so well. It wrestles with all that’s still problematic and controversial about the play today and will leave you with enough to think about until the next production of what’s set to be another strong summer season.