Performance #13: Out with the New, in with the Old

Last night we stood in the cruel chilly London wind for three hours to watch a performance of The Merchant of Venice at the Globe theatre. This was my fourth show I’ve seen at the Globe, counting the  Henry V I saw four years ago. As impressive as a modernized Shakespearean performance can be, it was even more spectacular to see a production as we may have seen it in Shakespeare’s day. There is a surprise at the end of the play that I was already informed about, so that was most likely the main thing that would not have been done in a Tudor performance of this play. It comes with many controversies because of the plays anti-Semitic lines and  bad portrayal of Christians. I didn’t say that the Christians were portrayed badly, but that they are portrayed in a bad light, because they’re acting like bad people! As a Christian myself it hurt to watch characters act in such an un-Christ-like behavior, but it brought today’s religious and social justice issues up perfectly.  I feel like I shouldn’t waste too many words on this production, because I enjoyed every aspect of it. I have no criticism, because it was a pretty amazing performance.

The costumes were absolutely incredible, just gorgeous! I envy the actors who played several characters, because they had so many beautiful costumes to change into. The lighting designer did a great job of highlighting the gold and red in their costumes. Also noticing the differences between the Christian and the Jewish characters’ costumes. Jessica, Shylock’s daughter, wore an extremely detailed dress but plainly colored that made her stand out from the other women. Of course, the difference between those who did and did not wear crosses was made very apparent. There was a scene when Lorenzo, Jessica’s husband, brought out her new cross like he was opening a Christmas toy. Jessica’s face was filled with strained happiness, as she knew she was betraying her father and her heritage.

The character of Portia is a tough one. She is one of Shakespeare’s smartest women, with a wit less vile than Beatrice or Katherine. Portia is a fair lady who has everything she could want in life, an estate, a husband she loves, and wealth enough to spread between she and her friends. But I came away from this performance highly displeased with Portia. Because of Jonathan Pryce’s incredibly empathetic performance of Shylock, your heart wept as he was told he must shed his religion, his life, and his culture. If Shylock were played with a stonier and malicious countenance I could more easily forget Portia’s wrongdoings. Historical context is extremely important for understanding this show, and yet these religious wrongs are still being performed. Portia and Narissa’s prideful glances to Jessica felt like you were watching bullies tease on the outcast in class. Even by pronouncing the J in Jessica (rather than Yess-sica, the Hebrew pronunciation) seemed like a stab towards her. Because Shylock will not take the pound of flesh from Antonio the merchant, Portia finds a loophole in the judicial system that says he must be forcefully converted to Christianity and stripped of half his lands and properties. She’s already saved her husband’s friend’s life, why further Shylock’s shame by doing this? Despite her jovial personality I could not look beyond her judgement on Shylock. This is not a rag on the actor or director, but I could not forgive Portia for what she did. The praise and glee of her and her husband as she divulged her secret about becoming the doctor added to my disdain. To see them joyfully celebrating it was a rude mirror to my own religion’s cruel history and present.

This was the best example of a solid ensemble that we’ve seen thus far. Every actor was invested and connected to their partners, there were no holes in the seams. There was also some of the best character acting that I’ve ever seen. There are so many forgettable small roles in this show, but the actors gave each character a memorable trait or traits that really made them stand out and become unforgettable. The best examples were the two princes that visit Portia in hopes of choosing the right box to become her husband. They were ridiculous but not unbelievable, because we all know people that a just a little “too much” to handle some times. A mixture of physical and vocal changes made a huge difference. Sometimes you learn more in one performance than you do in one three-hour class.

The surprise at the end of the play was a scene of baptism. As the acolytes marched forward in their white robes, we see Shylock in a white tunic walk forward as tears wash his face. His daughter, Jessica, who has run away to convert to Christianity in order to marry, begins crying and singing a Hebrew prayer. The contrast between the Christian and Hebrew songs of prayer was so moving. Watching the baptismal water be poured on him felt more like it was acid. It took such an innocent act of religion to an uncomfortable extreme that was really necessary for this production.

I’m so glad we got to see this production, because as aspiring actors and directors I think it’s essential to be reminded that Shakespeare does not always need to have a trendy spin on the production. Shakespeare’s words are still as relevant in today’s society, which raises the concern that we still share some of the same concerns as those who lived in the late 16th century. However, without the added baptism, it would not have been as moving of a production. Unfortunately one must realize that in Tudor England the audience would’ve been enraged if their audiences were left with a scene sympathizing with Shylock, a Jewish man.  In the video below is a somewhat different cast, but most of the main characters are the same. I saw a different Bassanio, who was played by Dan Fredenburgh, who is another somewhat famous film and stage star.

This performance has really filled me with inspiration for my craft and for the future.

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