The Merchant of Venice (Globe Theatre, Bankside)

A trip to the outdoors today and Shakespeare’s Globe for one of my favourites of the Bard’s plays, in Jonathan Munby’s production of ‘The Merchant of Venice’.  Jonathan Pryce, last seen on stage by me in King Lear, now plays Shylock, the Jewish usurer who plays Dominic Mafham’s Antonio for a ‘merry bond’ of a pound of the merchant’s flesh should he default on a loan of 3,000 ducats.  Antonio himself has sought this loan for his young friend Bassanio (Daniel Lapaine), who, despite being aware of, and repelling, the advances of the older man, still openly seeks his help to woo fair Portia (Rachel Pickup), who is herself trapped in the will of her late father where a successful suitor for her hand must choose a casket which contains her picture.


There are many ways a Merchant can be performed.  Here, the gay angle between Antonio and Bassanio is very much in evidence, while Pryce’s Shylock is a complex man who reveres his God and Testament (when Antonio dashes it to the ground, Shylock stoops to pick it up, brushes the dirt away, and kisses the volume) while nurturing a hate of Christians which seeks him to eventually sit in court, sharpening his knife, setting out his scales, and almost salivating at the thought that the merchant whose ships have failed might bleed to death at his hand.

A non-Shakespearian coda of Shylock’s forced baptism while his daughter Jessica (played by Pryce’s real-life child Phoebe) sings a Yiddish lament, is a moving close to a play which normally ends light with the farcical ring swap sequence between the two couples.  It almost swings the pendulum so we feel some sympathy for the Jew, despite his bloodthirsty and uncharitable conduct before the judge.  Not that Antonio appears noble and just in this play – in roughly grabbing Shylock by the beard, laughing at his religion, or spitting at his clothes, he appears racist and undeserving of the regard of Bassanio or his wife (disguised as a young doctor, whose eloquence and knowledge – although both founded in the chaos and panic of the judgement in court – save the day).

Jessica’s flight from home with jewels and ducats, and her easy conversion to Christianity, flaunting a cross around her neck through the second half of the play, is quickly accepted by the young Christians in this piece, although they still refer to her as ‘infidel’.  It contrasts sharply with the obvious distress of the Jew who, judgement given that he must convert, clings to an Antonio who himself was earlier grovelling and crying for his life, with pitiful sobs and moans.   For him the loss of his God is akin to the loss of life.

In the tradition of other Globe productions, the music gives a special atmosphere to the piece, as does Gobbo’s coercion of audience members to play his ‘fiend’ and ‘conscience’.  As Gobbo, Stefan Adegbola gives this play well-balanced comedy, as do the second set of lovers, Portia’s maid Nerissa (Dorothea Myer-Bennett) and Bassanio’s wisecracking companion, Gratiano (David Sturzaker).  I also liked the unlucky Princes of Morocco (Scott Karim) and Arragon (Christopher Logan), who chose wrongly in their suit for Portia.  Morocco’s greed and Arragon’s foolish vanity are well-conveyed, and both men play their parts well.

Mafham is an excellent Antonio, a man who teeters on the pathetic at times, whose life will not be happiness as his idol, Bassanio, is aware of his interest and constantly pushes him away, literally in their embrace where Antonio leans in for a kiss and Bassanio recoils sharply.  He may be accepted as friend by Portia but it may break him to see her and the young man he craves being so content together.

This is probably Pryce’s show, though, and he is convincing as Shylock, whether isolated in the court, giving the ‘Hath a Jew eyes’ speech, or collapsing from his court bluster to the man who has lost all because of his hate for others.  It gives an interesting dynamic to see him act alongside his daughter, and I think he does succeed in portraying all the facets of this complex role.


Shakespeare and Sylvia

Shakespeare’s Globe, at Bankside, London, has presented a range of plays suited to its open air stage over the past few years, but I wasn’t quite sure if they could pull off The Tempest, which with its storm, magic, and mystery seems to try out for an interior space where such things can be properly acted out.

Jeremy Herrin has brought a Tempest brimming full of comedy to the boards of The Globe, focusing less on the betrayal of Prospero by his brother and the blossoming love between Miranda and Ferdinand, and more on the misshapen Caliban and his drunken companions. Ariel, often melancholic or petulant, here is more of a Puck-like mischief maker, covered in feathers and moving around the set with cartwheels and acrobatics.

Roger Allam leads the cast and clearly relishes another chance to play at this unique theatre, where the audience are in your face and the regular aircraft services into London roar overhead. As Miranda, young Irish actress Jessie Buckley, fresh out of RADA, shows promise, although Joshua James made this production’s Ferdinand a bit too ‘silly ass’ in characterisation for my taste. James Garnon is a stand-out Caliban, although the ‘isles are full of wonder’ speech is somewhat lost in the play’s broad comedy. Colin Morgan isn’t my idea of Ariel, although he suits the mood.

A change of pace in the evening saw a full reading of Sylvia Plath’s restored masterpiece ‘Ariel’ at the Royal Festival Hall, introduced by her daughter Frieda Hughes. This evening was about forgetting Sylvia the ‘mad girl’ poet and all the material that had been written about her, or presented in the film about her and Ted Hughes. In ‘Ariel’, Plath finally found her voice and if the poems presented here are occasionally a little rough around the edges, or troubling in their focus on anger and depression, that does not detract from their genius. I have always admired her as a writer, and hearing thirty-nine different voices presenting her work (including actresses Juliet Stevenson, Susan Wooldridge, Kate Fahy, Harriet Walter, Deborah Findlay, Haydn Gwynne, Anna Chancellor, Miranda Richardson, Anastasia Hille, Victoria Hamilton, Phyllis Logan, Emily Bruni, Stella Gonet, Samantha Bond, Annabelle Apsion, Maureen Beattie and Siobhan Redmond; and poets Lavinia Greenlaw, Vicki Feaver, Julia Copus, Jean Sprackland, Ruth Fainlight, Gillian Clarke and Jo Shapcott) as well as Plath herself reciting ‘Daddy’, brought her words into sharp relief.

Stand-outs, if I had to pick them, would be Berck Plage (Walter), Lady Lazarus (Bruni), Cut (Amy McAllister), The Detective (Beattie), Fever 103 (Hamilton), and Death & Co (Chancellor), but all were accomplished and about the writer, not the speaker. Poetry as theatre can be difficult and inaccessible, especially when you consider a poet as ‘loaded’ in her history as Sylvia Plath, but this evening did achieve a tribute to her work without focusing too much on her demons.

Anne Boleyn (Globe Theatre)

Originally published on my LiveJournal blog on 21 August 2011.

Howard Brenton’s play about Henry VIII’s second wife, Queen Anne (Boleyn), was one of the hits of The Globe Theatre’s 2010 season, and makes a welcome return here, with Miranda Raison again in the lead.

If you’re expecting Shakespeare, or even exact historical accuracy, then think again. The play opens with James VI of Scotland (and I of England) coming to terms with his new role as the English King following the death of Elizabeth I (daughter of Henry VIII and Anne). This Scot is boorish, annoying, and full of prattle – hard to reconcile with the witty scholar James is commonly known to be. He senses the spirit of Anne Boleyn when he sees her Coronation gown, and this is the cue for Brenton to bring the executed Queen back to life, with some repartee with the audience over whether or not she should show us her head … or her Bible!

Miranda Raison as Anne Boleyn.
Miranda Raison as Anne Boleyn.

The story of Anne and how she came to capture the King’s heart, oust Katherine of Aragon from the court and position, and become Queen, was told already in Shakespeare’s ‘Henry VIII’, seen at The Globe last year, and so is not really repeated here. Brenton’s focus is on religion, and how Anne’s Protestant leanings eventually took wing as James I of England commissions a new translation of The Bible based on the heretical text of William Tyndale’s version.

Brenton surmises that Anne did indeed meet with Tyndale, but there is little historical evidence for this – equally there is a little playing with facts (Wolsey’s head could not be laid before Anne by Henry to show his love, even rhetorically, as he was not executed; and James I could not be happy at his mother’s execution as he was too small to really be aware of it).

This play stands or falls on whether you know your English history, I think – and how well you know other versions of the story of Henry and Anne. References to rope torture in Act Two may well be reminiscent of ‘Anne of the Thousand Days’, while the significance of Jane Rochford’s betrayal early on can be better understood knowing from the start she was married to Anne’s brother, who went to the block for treason and incest, accused alongside his sister.

Raison is a good Anne, self-assured, confident, but collapsing at the news she is to be removed from her position and put to trial and death. As Henry, Anthony Howell is very much a young blade (although in actual fact he had been married to Katherine for many years, so was considerably older than Anne). Memorable performances are achieved by Colin Hurley as Cardinal Wolsey, Julius D’Silva as Thomas Cromwell, and Peter Hamilton Dyer as William Tyndale.

The James I plot is OK, but is the weakest link in this production. James Garnon gives a good enough performance but it too thickly laid on with comic looks, grimaces, and a ludicrous dance with George Villiers (in historical fact, Villiers was a favourite of the King, but whether he ever danced with him while he wore Anne Boleyn’s Coronation dress is unknown, and unlikely …).

Enjoyable, then, but not without fault. Perhaps that is exactly how Henry VIII would have described Anne Boleyn.