We arrived quite early to the Southbank, about 6 pm, the show starting at 7.30 pm. It was a cold afternoon for May 2nd. It was not difficult, staring the brown waters of the Thames rippled by the wind, to imagine those terrible winters during the Elizabethan years, when the river froze and one could walk from one side to the other. To be honest, I was not in the mood of imagination time travel that afternoon, I was too busy trying to memorise as many details as I could and scan the faces (hubby’s proverbial ability to “spot the VIP” could be of little help there). After taking some pictures we waited by the riverside. I did not realised that the main entrance was not the black iron gate facing the river therefore instead of being undercover perusing the gift shop or taking a coffee, I was scanning the movements of the staff preparing the show. At more or less a quarter to 7 pm an small army of stewards left the exhibition building on our right side and took position. One of the actors, Christopher Logan, walked hurriedly to the dressing rooms while he was checking his mobile phone. Then the gate was open to admit the groundlings queueing.
I made some shopping in the gift shop and then entered the yard. Theatre doors were still closed. The floor is decorated with the names of patrons and supporters of the Globe Foundation. I recognized suddenly one name among the others:
We hired our cushions (it’s not advisable to sit for three hours in a wooden bench) and, finally, theatre doors were open, I was there. I was deeply moved, finally, after months of day dreaming I was t-h-e-r-e.
The stage, designed by Mike Britton, is covered with dark wooden planks that hide coloured columns and the background, as a symbol of the dark oppressing atmosphere of the play, the decadence of Venice looming all over. Some minutes before the appointed time, the drums were heard, and the musicians entered the stage. The magic of theatre begun, we were not in London anymore, but in the streets of Venice, where masked men and women drink and sing. The rhythm of the music goes in crescendo, the beating of the drums, the sound of clarinets, the words of a venetian song fill the air; the masked figures cheer and salute the musicians shouting “bravo!”. Three figures lad in white, a cupid and two lovers, represent a love scene.
I’m not quite sure if it is in this moment when Antonio (Dominc Mafham) takes off his mask and leaves the stage; in that moment of triumph of love and happiness Antonio is an outsider, being his part in the world, as he will say later, a sad one. After the music has reached a climax, two Hebrews enter the scene. One of them is beaten and spat by the drunk venetians.
This prologue is a perfect summary of a play that talks of truth and falseness, repressed desires, dreams fulfilled and unaccomplished. And now, to the play… I warn you, this is a very partial summary of impressions as I will not write about all the characters and actors; each and every single one of them is a perfect casting choice.
In sooth I know not why I am so sad. It wearies me, you say it wearies you…
These are the first lines of the play, said by Antonio to Salarino and Solanio. I heard them from Dominic Mafham’s lungs, vocal chords and mouth to my ears, crossing the air within the “wooden O”. You may think that as something obvious, but it’s not in Italy. I don’t know the reason, if it’s due to lack of technical skill from the actors’ side, or the audience that ask for it, the fact is that here, even in small theatres, actors wear always a microphone. Therefore their voices do never come directly from the stage, but sideways, or where the loudspeakers are, adding a sensation of “fakeness” to the representation, it’s like seeing a dubbed movie.
Going back to the stage, with Jonathan’s Mumby’s direction Antonio’s melancholy is made not only of sadness, but also of anger. When Solanio (Regé-Jean Page) asks Antonio if he’s in love, he replies shouting angrily “fie! fie!”, with the same violence that he will use later on when grasping Shylock’s throat when he says that he will keep on calling him dog and spitting on him.
Maybe te reason of this over reaction lies in his attachment to Bassanio. Once more, it is on Solanio’s mouth that we hear that he [Antonio] loves the world for him. To please Bassanio Antonio lowers himself to deal with the man he hates the most in Venice. The merchant knows that if his friend succeeds he will lose him forever, and, moreover, in that city where everybody plays a part, where it is known that all that glisters is not gold, Bassanio simply uses him or, at least, will never give Antonio what he really desires. The director has underlined this refusal; when the trial finishes and Antonio and Bassanio (Daniel Lapaine) are alone on the stage, the latter stiffens and his smile freezes as the merchant closes, searching for a kiss.
Dominic Mafham renders to perfection the psyche of his borderline character till the last scene; in the several press reviews on the play that I’ve read he’s been dedicated no more than thirty words… He deserves more praises, in my humble opinion. The apparently calmed and balanced voice with which he concedes his cruel and hypocritical “pardon” to Shylock, providing that he converts to Christianity, balances his previous shrieks of despair and prayers in Latin when Shylock had his knife ready to cut a pound of flesh, near his heart. The bond between the two men is not made of carrion flesh but of hatred and contempt. The contempt with which, for instance, Antonio throws the holy scriptures Shylock hold when he asks the loan.
My sympathies to David Sturzaker (Gratiano), given that one of the first things he does when going to work to the Globe is to throw up in a bucket in front of several hundreds of people. I do sincerely hope that the stuff he fills his mouth with has at least a nice taste; it was for a good reason, as his first lines are you look not well, signor Antonio, the audience laughs are granted. Gratiano is the most “Italian” of the characters in this play: passionate, histrionic, theatrical, and Mr. Sturzaker’s interpretation flawless.
In a play where both the Jew and the Christians have faults and virtues, the director Jonathan Mumby underlines the dark side of the main characters. As with Antonio, this Portia (Rachel Pickup) has more in her of the devil than of the saint. She is racist and biased as her fellow Venetians, intelligent and manipulative. She wants Bassanio and she knows that the leaden casket is where her portrait is. She moves around this casket before the Venetian makes his choice, and commands her musicians to play a song with self-explanatory lyrics fancy dies in the cradle where it lies. There is a prima donna inside Portia; the second part of the play opens in her palace, Belmont. Lorenzo and Jessica are dancing a volta, but she interferes, flirts with Lorenzo and takes Jessica’s place. Once more, in the double-sided Venice, where nothing is what it seems, although she greets the couple with a they are entirely welcome, she ignores deliberately Jessica with the same haughty cruelty with which the most popular girl in the school despises the unpopular one. As all the cast, Rachel Pickup is perfect in her performance.
“The Merchant of Venice” is a comedy, and I have talked very little about it so far. Indeed there are several very comical moments in the play, these are my favourite ones.
During Launcelot Gobbo’s monologue about whether to follow or not his conscience, Stefan Adegbola chooses two groundlings to play his good and bad conscience; if he chooses a very shy girl as good conscience and a very bright young man as the bad one, the result cannot be more hilarious.
The other funny moment was Christopher Logan as the Prince of Arragon. It’s curious that the two moments that have made me laugh to tears in my London theatre experience come from two Englishmen playing (or rather mocking) the Spaniards (the before mentioned Christopher Logan and Tim McMullan in “Man and Superman” as Mendoza).
I have adored how Mr. Logan walked from one casket to another behind Portia, how he dragged the “r”, his expressions. One regrets nevertheless that his part is so short.
And what about Jonathan Pryce? I can say that I can say now have seen him playing Shylock, and, for all of you who have still the chance to go to the Globe, I beg you: please, go. Mr. Pryce represents the sublime in a perfect ensemble. Shylock is probably one of the iconic Shakespearean roles with less lines but that can sink an actor’s career. Much to my regret I have seen this winter in Rome a version of The Merchant with one of the most famous living Italian actors as Shylock: the biggest disappointment I have experience as an audience. Instead, Mr. Pryce’s performance had everything. Meek and servile with Bassanio and Antonio in his first appearance, cruel at home with his daughter Jessica. Another touch of the director, we are witnesses of a discussion in Yiddish between father and daughter (Phoebe Pryce plays the daughter). Shylock is cruel and mean, oppressive as the black wooden grill behind the stage; ridiculously mean when Tubal tells him of Jessica spending four score ducats in Genoa, crying honestly when he learns that his daughter has given away the turquoise that would not have given even for a wilderness of monkeys. Oh, those last fifteen minutes on stage during the trial scene… The intelligent and cunning Portia, disguised as a young lawyer, throws the cobweb with which the Jew will be trapped.
I need to see the play once more (I sincerely hope that it will be captured for the Globe Player) to identify the exact moment in which Shylock seats and takes out, with slow scrupulousness, the balance to weight Antonio’s flesh as I’m not sure if it was during the Duke’s plea or Portias’ famous “mercy speech”. Nevertheless, the way Mr. Pryce takes out the balance and puts it in the small table besides his chair is, allow me the cheap joke, Pryceless, and his desperation on hearing the verdict, sincere. While Gratiano grabs him by the arm, mocking him, his voice starts to creak when he refuses the bond and accepts the money. But Shylock, as Portia says, shalt have justice more than thou desir’st. When the Duke says that he will be deprived of all his wealth he paces nervously, to and fro, cries silently, bends his body, and with a broken voice says
Nay, take my life and all, pardon not that.
You take my hose when you do take the prop
That doth sustain my house; you take my life
When you do take the means whereby I live
But Shylock is not yet a completely broken man. He will be on receiving Antonio’s “mercy” that he presently become a Christian. It is impossible not to be moved by his cry of agony, his sobs and cries. Shylock cannot stand the pain anymore, I am not well, send the deed after me, and I will sign it. Gratiano throws away with contempt his red Jewish cap and insults him for the last time; Shylock sobs and almost falls, leaving the stage. In an absolute, deafening silence from the audience. I was shocked, we all were, and forgot to breathe for a moment.
That should be, according to the text, the last Shylock’s scene, but the director has added an epilogue, after “the rings issue” is solved in Belmont. Jessica receives a letter with the news about his father; she sits, crying, on a side of the stage, singing and shouting a lament in Hebrew. Phoebe Pryce is extraordinary, I’m sure that this actress can offer us many more great performances.
Shylock is baptized and his shout “CREDO!”, closes the play. An amazingly incredible experience. Please, all of you who can: go, go, go to see it!
The man that hath no music in himself,
Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils