note: entire contents copyright 2001 by Joe Coyne
Playwright Gareth Armstrong
Director Frank Barrie
Tubal and Others Gareth Armstrong
Gareth Armstrong is a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company and has been working for a number of years with this solo performance exploring the roots of anti-Semitism in Western Europe and Shakespeare's play "The Merchant of Venice." He intertwines the production history of the play with the banishment of the Jews from England and later of all Europe. His theatrical device is the discussion of these matters by the only other Jew in any of Shakespeare's plays, Tubal. Tubal is a friend of Shylock's and as Tubal describes it, "His best friend. Actually I'm his only friend."
Armstrong holds the attention of the audience with silence and pausing and a very clear speaking voice. Tubal has the demeanor of the Will Lebow/Shylock produced several years ago at the ART, ingratiatingly silly. He tells of the 1190 massacre of the Jews in York, England, of their continued persecution and the flight to the ends of Italy where they were ghettoized on the islands of Venice. He shows us a selection of badges that they were forced to wear 400 years ago before the Third Reich insisted on such identification. He reads us the Barabbas scene from The Bible. All the while we are also learning of Antonio's rudeness, of Jessica, Shylock's daughter, of Bassanio's need to borrow funds to court the fair Portia. "The Merchant of Venice" was lifted from "Il Pecorone" an Italian fairy tale about a simpleton with a very similar plot and where the Jew is not given a name.
The performance gets a decided lift in the second act when much more of the text is from Shakespeare. Actors who have played Shylock in the past: Charles Macklin, Henry Irving appear in their costumes. We are told that Hitler liked the play but thought that a few changes would improve the plot along with a few changes of casting.
Armstrong has thought hard about these lines and works much character and cleverness into them. Shylock who is in only five of the twenty scenes in "Merchant" and could be considered a minor character, is present on the stage even as Portia speaks of mercy to the vacant chair. Some excellent lighting choices assist in setting the atmosphere, but I am sure much of the effect is there when Armstrong performs in a cold gymnasium in the middle of Kansas. His exploration of Shylock, trying to understand his motivation, produces no ogre or elements of a flawed character. It is a sympathetic reading of the many reasons that break the man down. But with no explanation for the vehemence with which Shylock seeks the death of Antonio, there is a gap. Call it the weight of hundreds of years of persecution, but if you do, you have to cast elements of selfishness and greed in the balance of the cast. Armstrong has done this in his reading of Portia and the Duke.
This is a traveling show working its way around the world. Parts seemed aimed at a high school level with a simplicity of story when the audience could well handle complexity and ambiguity. You will not be disappointed with the performance. Ian McKellen had a one-man show about 15 years ago on Shakespeare's characters as did Lynn Redgrave. This is at the same high caliber .