The quality of mercy is weighed in the balance in this brilliant new production starring Jonathan Pryce as Shylock.
Venice is a city awash with cash and confidence, its merchants sure of future success, and its moneylenders quietly keeping business schemes afloat.
This opulence surges through Jonathan Munby’s production, which manages the balance between cruelty, courtship and comedy with a lightness of touch that makes The Merchant of Venice an enthralling spectacle.
Graceful, diffident, but with a core of iron, Jonathan Pryce’s Shylock is a man who necessarily lives in the shadows. The Jewish moneylender is reviled and insulted by the contemptuous Christians who need him despite themselves, and it’s small wonder he turns so savagely on his tormentors, demanding his pound of flesh when the opportunity strikes.
The role clearly has plenty of villainous possibilities – getting out your scales to weigh your debtor’s heart won’t win many friends – but Pryce has managed to create an extraordinarily sympathetic outcast whose torments are almost too awful to watch. The careful father is robbed of his child, and his agonised howl when his own sentence is passed sends chills right up to the Globe’s gallery.
Rachel Pickup excels as Portia – surely one of the most satisfying female roles of them all – combining humour, grace and intelligence. Her sparky relationship with Nerissa is one of the highlights of the production, and with their saucy asides and confidential schemes, the two of them paint a very attractive picture of female love and companionship across the class divide.
Dorothea Myer-Bennett is a wonderfully entertaining Nerissa, discreetly getting what she wants and matching her mistress in both wit and judgement.
There are terrific performances throughout the company. Stefan Adegbola fizzes with energy as the crowd-pleasing Launcelot Gobbo, while Scott Karim’s magnificent sword-wielding suitor, the Prince of Morocco, opens the bidding for Portia’s hand.
And as for Christopher Logan’s brilliant Prince of Arragon, this is a dandy to beat them all.
David Sturzaker gets some of the best laughs as Gratiano, while Daniel Lapaine as Bassanio and Dominic Mafham’s Antonio weave a careful subtext around the adoration of one, and the loyalty of the other. And Phoebe Pryce captures the balance between Jessica’s passionate love for Lorenzo (Ben Lamb) and her misgivings as a cruelly undutiful daughter.
The luxury of wealthy living is reflected in Mike Britton’s beautiful costumes, with the women glittering in their stiffened metallic fabrics. The billowing gauze curtains also lend an air of enchantment as they lift in the evening breeze.
Lorenzo observes how vital a part music plays in life, and Musical Director Jeremy Avis has certainly created a superb ensemble of singers and musicians to accompany this production.
The Merchant of Venice is troubling in many ways, not least because of its contemporary resonance. But Munby has brought together a magnificent company who do full justice to the play’s brilliant characterisations and comedy, as well as leaving bitter questions about justice, mercy, and the value we place on one another’s lives.
• The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare’s Globe, until Sunday 7th June
Box office 020 7401 9919
21 New Globe Walk, London SE1 9DT