Recent examinations of Shakespeare’s canon have brought into question the problematic concerns of a handful of his characters. Sara Beer and her brilliant show on Richard III remains an important piece, cornering elements of disability in the king and who should be playing him. Welsh National Opera’s take on The Merchant of Venice saw Shylock played by Lester Lynch a baritone of colour, adding extra elements of racism to the hate for the character. We’re still waiting for a fresh look at Othello, but for now we settle for the Bard’s take on a Jewish figure and a prickly one at that.
Leading on from these thought-provoking performances comes Shylock, written and directed by Gareth Armstrong. I’ve wanted to see this show since presenting actor Rhodri Miles with a Wales Theatre Award for his role here. With the piece done in both English and Welsh (on separate nights) this proves to be an accessible show with much to say. We’ve seen Miles as Welsh icons Richard Burton and Dylan Thomas, though here are several more layers to the role (or rather roles) as he is really playing Tubal in The Merchant of Venice and not essentially Shylock. As Tubal, he informs us he only gets a meagre eight lines of dialogue in one scene, though still essential as he notifies his friend on the exploits of Shylock’s daughter, Jessica who has run off with a young man.
Through this lies the only two Jewish characters in all of Shakespeare. The work isn’t afraid to shy away from the dark history of this country including the suicide pact of York’s Jews or the Nazi war crimes we are still recovering from. I would encourage more of this tackling of the past in honest detail, as there is plenty of humour to balance the tone just enough. All though the piece falls into some one man show trappings, it still remains a good night at the theatre. The use of lighting is another great addition to the show, adding mood and focus to the ever shifting scenes
I would also encourage some trimming here and there, omitting the interval as well.
It is the pithy insights from Armstrong cornering Shylock, Jews in general and anti-Semitism that hold up the show, along with Miles’ broad acting talents. We discover Hitler loved the play, though is that any big surprise? Of course, he would lap up a play where the exhausted and defeated Jew is left with little to his name at the end as he leaves the stage for the last time. I’d like to think he dies of this plight, partly caused by his own temper and stubbornness, perhaps defined by his dogmatic views within his profession and faith? Views on Shylock are a spectrum of insights and observations, the character being considered evil still causes much debate even today. He remains a startling cry of a character, certainly one of the most complex the Bard ever wrote.
We can see Miles have good fun doing all this. Whether he’s running about, gurning to the audience or just acting out the play itself, he carries the show with an energy and wit, that are demanded from the vast script. I love the flurry of character changes he does, turning around and simply making a face or adding a layer of costume, to become someone new. Even a few actors from the centuries get the Miles treatment, with greats like Sir Henry Irving getting the spotlight back again after many decades away. The comparison in how each actor would take on the role is another entertaining component here, with alcoholism appearing to be a recurring vice for these bygone thespians. A brief flurry of Christopher Marlow also challenges how Jews were seen in a blazing monologue from his The Jew of Malta (written ten years before Merchant), with hook nosed mask and ginger perm as grotesque stereotyping abound.
There is little question here as to who should be playing Shylock, since Miles proves he is up to the task in every way. Though I doubt he would turn down playing Tubolt either.