William Shakespeare has certainly posed challenges for directors these many decades and centuries later. What to do, for instance, in the 21st century about the relentless anti-Semitism in The Merchant of Venice?
Jonathan Munby, who directs the Shakespeare's Globe production of that prickly problem play imported to the Rose Theater for Lincoln Center Festival 2016, has been ingenious while looking the how-to-handle-Shylock-and-his-oppressors puzzler directly in the face.
On the in-the-face tack, it should be pointed out that not only does Shylock report being spit at but Munby makes certain that ticket buyers witness the persistent effrontery accorded Jews in Shakespeare's idea of 16th-century Venice, a prejudice, of course, ever-present in his England--and some say, still lurking nowadays.
Beginning the play by placing it during Venice's carnival and incorporating Jules Maxwell's klezmer-lke music, Munby shows Shylock (Jonathan Pryce) and an associate, both in stylish red yarmulkes, being spit at and severely beaten. (Designer Mike Britton's costumes are uniformly stunning on Jew and Gentile alike.)
Throughout, Munby keeps the disdain for Jews prominent. He even goes so far as to portray the wise Portia (willowy, beautiful Rachel Pickup) demonstrating off-handed regard for Shylock's daughter Jessica (darkly striking Phoebe Pryce), who's abandoned her father and converted to Christianity to please husband Lorenzo (Andy Apollo).
During the famous courtroom scene Munby also injects the Elizabethan age's inured anti-Semitism into Portia's treatment of Shylock, whom Pryce plays as a man of great dignity, despite (because of?) the hatred accorded him. The young woman, now in lawyer's robes, definitely seems to be straining the mercy she eloquently declares to be not strained.
Perhaps wanting to stress the unmissable evidence of bigotry continuing rampant in this 400th year after Shakespeare's death, Munby doesn't let up. He gives Jessica's betrayal of her father additional thought and inserts a late sequence that won't be described here, other than to say it gives audiences something to think about in regard to the strength of her conversion. Somewhat earlier, there's heart-wrenching stage business involving Shylock's yarmulke.
This visual yarmulke aid, by the way, follows a much earlier scene Munby has added in which Shylock and Jessica have an agitated exchange in Yiddish. It's evidently there as a result of Munby's determining the father-daughter relationship needed bolstering. Incidentally, it doesn't sound as if the Yiddish duologue is in iambic pentameter.
It could be that Munby's extreme depiction of Shylock's relentless repudiation is the reason behind the moneylender's obdurate behavior during the trial of Antonio (Dominic Mafham). That's when Shylock insists on collecting Antonio's promised pound of flesh after his failing to repay the borrowed ducats. Shylock won't back down from his demands even when offered thrice what he's owed. Perhaps more than usually, spectators aware of the cruelty accorded Shylock may find themselves taking his side.
During the parts of the play when the Shylock plot gets a breather and the competition for Portia's hand and its aftermath takes focus--with Portia's companion Nerissa (Dorothea Myer-Bennett) standing by--Munby hews to a more tradition approach every bit as successful as the enhanced Shylock episodes.
He has a first-rate cast performing for him, featuring Dan Fredenburgh as a dashing and substantial Bassanio, Stefan Adegbola as a vivacious Launcelot Gobbo and Jolyon Coy as a wily Gratiano.
There are a few things to mention about transferring this production--actually any Shakespeare's Globe production--to a conventional proscenium theater. Those productions are staged with daylight in mind as well as the open floor space directly in front of the thrust stage. That, of course, is where the groundlings station themselves and through which actors often make their way. The Globe also a second-level balcony for musicians that's not replicated here. To compensate for the sun or clouds appearing above the Globe's O, house lights are partially kept on.
So, much of the Globe amenities are gone, although patrons who've never seen and heard a performance there won't miss what they don't know. On the other hand, rather than have Adegbola as Launcelot Gobbo bring unsuspecting groundlings on stage for participation, Munby has him cajole audience members. The substitution nicely duplicates the enjoyable consequences.
Full (embarrassing) disclosure: Although I've seen The Merchant of Venice repeatedly and read and reread the play, this was the first time it occurred to me that the title figure isn't Shylock but Antonio. He's the merchant relying on revenue from the ships that disastrously sink and leave him in that terrifying pound-of-flesh jeopardy. Why did I think otherwise? Or, more precisely, never give it much thought at all? Maybe because Shylock and Portia are the focal characters here, not secondary (catalyst) Antonio. Oh well: live and learn.