28 August 2016

'Golem' (Lincoln Center Festival, 2016)


According to Leo Rosten’s The Joys of Yiddish, golem, which is pronounced like (but is otherwise unrelated to) the Lord of the Rings character Gollum, is a Hebrew, not Yiddish, word that means ‘matter without shape’ or ‘a yet-unformed thing.’  The word appears in Psalms 139:16 and elsewhere in the Old Testament, as well as the Talmud, which explains how Adam was formed from dust, became a ‘shapeless mass,’ and was eventually brought to life.  In Jewish legends developed during 5th to 15th centuries, the golem was an image or form that’s given life through a magical formula.  Folk stories arose of wise men in eastern and central Europe who could, by using charms, instill life in anthropomorphic clay effigies that were believed to offer special protection to Jews against anti-Semitic attacks and pogroms. (It’s also a Kabbalistic legend.  The Kabbalah, the book of Jewish mysticism, features numerology and the magic of letters in certain arrangements, and one of the ways a golem is brought to life is by placing a Hebrew word or series of letters in its mouth or on its forehead.)  There are many tales differing in location and how the golem is brought to life and afterwards controlled.  As Rosten recounted the phenomenon:

The most famous of these imaginary creatures was the Golem of Prague.  In the seventeenth century, a legend grew around Rabbi Judah Lowe (or Low) of Prague [1526?-1609], a renowned scholar who was supposed to have created a golem to help protect the Jews from many calamities the anti-Semites attempted.  The golem helped Rabbi Lowe bring criminals to justice; he exposed spreaders of anti-Semitic canards; he saved an innocent girl from apostasy by force; he even discovered in the nick of time that the Passover matzos had been poisoned!

Originally passed on by oral tradition as a warning against hubris, the story has been transcribed numerous times over the centuries.  In the 20th century, it’s also been the subject of a number of films, starting in the silent era.  The legend was probably an inspiration to Mary Shelley (1797-1851) for her novel Frankenstein in 1818 and may have had significant impact on Wolfgang von Goethe’s (1749-1832) “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” (1797) and the play R.U.R. (1921) by Prague dramatist Karel Čapek (1890-1938), which introduced the word robot into the English language.  

The best-known rendition of the story is arguably Der Golem, a 1914 Austrian novel by Gustav Meyrink (1868-1932).  Another rendition is a 1921 Yiddish-language “dramatic poem in eight sections,” Golem by H. Leivick (pseudonym of Leivick Halpern, 1888-1962).  In 1923, Romanian composer Nicolae Bretan (1887-1968) wrote the one-act opera The Golem.  Nobel Prize-winner Isaac Bashevis Singer (1902-91) wrote a children’s version of the legend in 1969 and Elie Wiesel (1928-2016) also wrote a children’s novel based on the folktale in 1983.  Argentinean writer Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986) discovered the Meyrink novel sometime after World War I and it influenced his subsequent writing greatly, especially his works of “magical realism.”  In 1958, Borges published the poem about “El Golem.”  In the 21st century, there have been female golems and both genders have appeared in comic books, graphic novels, and video games, as well as films and TV shows. 

In Meyrink's expressionistic novel, the unnamed narrator assumes the identity of Athanasius Pernath, a Christian jeweler and art restorer who lives in the Prague ghetto, during a visionary dream.  While the novel generally centers on Pernath’s life, it also chronicles the lives of his friends and neighbors.  The story is a disjointed and fragmentary tale of encounters Pernath has with people in the ghetto, meant to convey mysticism and hallucinatory episodes.  Meyrink reveals over the course of the novel that Pernath, who’s forgotten his past, suffered some sort of mental illness when he was younger and was institutionalized and the veracity of his accounts is in question.  The Golem of the title doesn’t figure prominently as a character in the novel, but is rather a vague presence that used to stalk the ghetto in the 16th century.  It begins to appear in Pernath’s visions after a man brings him an ancient book of Jewish mysticism (almost certainly The Kabbalah), whose illuminated initial letter needs to be restored.  (Believe it or not, I actually read this novel in a German course in college, though I have very little specific recollection of it.  It’s extremely difficult to follow—even in English, much less German.)

1927, founded in 2005 by director, writer, and performer Suzanne Andrade and animator and illustrator Paul Barritt, specializes in combining performance and live music with animation and film.  Central to 1927’s vision is the exploration of the relationship between the live performer and animation to create dynamic and innovative live performances.  “1927 began when I started working with Suzanne,” said Barritt.  “She’d done theatre before and I was making films.  We named the company after the year that saw the end of the silent film era, and the release of Metropolis”—the film by Fritz Lang that was one of the last great silent movies, though other sources assert the name refers to the year The Jazz Singer, considered by some the first full-length talkie, was released. 

The troupe’s hybrid work combines speech, film, music, song, movement, and handmade animation and aims to fuse these disparate elements in an intricately choreographed harmony.  It takes the troupe as much as two to three years to create a show and nine or 10 months to rehearse it.  Having started out on London’s cabaret scene, 1927 made its début with Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2007, winning several awards.  Devil went on to two seasons in London and toured around the U.K. and across the globe.  The company took home the 2008 Peter Brook Empty Space Award for Best Ensemble and two 2008 New York Drama Desk Award nominations (Unique Theatrical Experience and Projection & Animation).

The company’s second production, The Animals and Children Took to the Streets, premièred at Australia’s Sydney Opera House in 2010 and again garnered acclaim and awards, eventually being performed over 400 times in 80 venues across 28 countries on 5 continents.  In 2012, 1927 collaborated with Berlin’s Komische Oper to create its first opera, a reimagining of Mozart’s The Magic Flute co-directed by Andrade and Komische Oper’s director Barry Kosky with animation by Barritt; the show is still in the opera company’s repertoire and has seen new productions around the world.  Paul Barritt’s short film, White Morning, débuted at the 2014 London Short Film Festival, again winning critical attention, and went on to further film festival appearances. Since that time, 1927 has experimented with and explored new and challenging combinations of live performance, film, and animation (on a relatively low-tech level: they don’t use computer animation or CGI, though computers do aid in controlling the performances). 

In 2014, 1927 created a stage adaptation of the golem tale inspired by Meyrink’s novel. which Barritt describes as “a kind of mystical, hallucinogenic thriller.”  As we’ll soon see, 1927’s Golem diverges substantially from the 100-year-old book.  The play was developed at the Harrogate Theatre in Harrogate, England, in July 2014 and had its world première on 22 August 2014 at the Salzburg Festival in Salzburg, Austria, running there through 27 August.  Over the following year, Golem played in several theaters in England, principally London (Stratford Circus, 14 November 2014; Young Vic Theatre, 9 December 2014-17 January 2015; Trafalgar Studio 1, West End, 14 April-22 May 2015) and Brighton (The Old Market, 21-22 November 2014), before going on an international tour to Taipei (National Theater and Concert Hall, 12-15 March 2015), Paris (Théâtre de la Ville, 27 May-4 June 2015), Moscow (Chekhov International Theater Festival, Mayakovsky Moscow Theater, 23-27 June 2015), Beijing (National Center for the Performing Arts International Theater Festival, NCPA Drama Theater No. 2, 29-30 August 2015), Madrid (Festival de Ontoñio a Primavera, Teatros del Canal, 9-12 December 2015), and Adelaide, Australia (Adelaide Festival of Arts, Dunstan Playhouse, 8-13 March 2016).  Golem, co-produced with the Salzburg Festival, the Théâtre de la Ville, Paris, and the Young Vic Theatre, London, made its U.S. première this year at the Spoleto Festival USA in Charleston, South Carolina (Sottile Theatre of the College of Charleston, 8-12 June), and then came to New York City from 26 to 31 July as part of the Lincoln Center Festival, where Diana, my frequent theater partner, and I saw it at the Gerald W. Lynch Theater of John Jay College, west of Columbus Circle, at the 7:30 performance on Friday evening, 29 July. 

Likening Golem, written and directed by Andrade with animation created by Barritt, to “a giant graphic novel burst into life” in its Lincoln Center Festival publicity, 1927 characterizes its “synthesis of handmade animation, claymation, live music, and theater” as “a dystopian fable for the 21st century” which explores “who—or what—is in control of our technologies?”  In an interview with David Tushingham, dramaturg of the Salzburg Festival, Barritt stated: “If there is one part of [Meyrink's] book that has ended up in our show, it’s that social comment aspect.  The rest of it, whilst it was certainly a spring board into the idea of doing the Golem myth, we dismissed fairly early on.”  In this “dark and fantastical tale,” the company posits that “humankind’s downfall comes about through a time-saving, life-simplifying gadget bought by the masses—a nightmare of the digital revolution made all the more ghoulish by the candy-colored world in which it is set.”

The performance starts with a voice-over narrator (Andrade) explaining, ”We live in a world where people want for nothing, we are safe and secure—we are progressive, we believe in the new . . . .”  Taking us back to a simpler time, when people used pencils and ate aspic jelly with corned beef, the voice introduces us to the family of librarian Annie (Esme Appleton), her nerdy brother Robert (Shamira Turner), and their Gran (Rose Robinson).  Annie leads a punk-rock band called Annie and the Underdogs made up of her brother and their odd-ball friends who sing about revolution and anarchy in a basement.  Robert has a tedious and repetitive data-entry job in a department that “backs up the backup” of Binary Back Up.  Among his co-workers, who have their own communication system in which they converse in binary code—0’s and 1’sis Joy (Robertson), who catches his eye (Robert never having had a girlfriend) and is soon promoted to “head of stationery” (where her post, high above her co-workers, is in the Stationary Station [sic]).

Robert’s daily walk to work is a marvelous juxtapostion of animation and mime as he walks jauntily (think Chaplin’s Little Tramp without the cane) in place before a stage-width projection of the rundown shops and businesses (the names of some of which are chuckle-worthy on their own: Cod Is Dead Fish and Chips, Bog Standard Restaurant, One Eyed Jack’s Optometry, Helen Back’s Osteopath) along his route.  (Barritt based the streetscape on photos he took of downtown Los Angeles when he was there with another 1927 production.  It’s part of L.A. that’s “kind of been left and you’ve got all these old 20s cinemas, which are just empty,” says the animator.  The Huffington Post reviewer, though, likened the street scene to “Bleecker Street circa 1970.”)  On his way home one evening, Robert visits the store-front shop of inventor Phil Sylocate (Will Close); Robert’s former schoolmate convinces him to purchase his newest creation, a Golem, a giant clay man (more-or-less anatomically complete) who’s programmed to obey its master’s every wish.  (Phil Sylocate’s name is a pun on phyllosilicate, the mineral of which clay is largely composed.)

To bring Golem to life in the morning, Robert just whispers the magic words, and repeats the spell to deactivate him at night.  While Golem is awake, it tirelessly follows Robert’s every command and soon Robert has it doing all the household chores and even assuming his duties at work.  When Golem starts to speak (in the soothing, automated voice of Ben Whitehead, reminiscent a little of 2001: A Space Odyssey’s HAL), however, Robert is at first surprised.  But Golem seems loveable and helpful at first, and Robert is recognized at work for his efficiency.  Golem begins to give Robert fashion suggestions, career counseling, and dating tips, and the advice is so effective that Robert’s life is significantly improved, as he attracts Joy’s attention and advances his position at work.  (Ironically, Golem is himself influenced by technology: he gets the ideas he passes along to Robert from the advertising slogans and sales pitches he hears on television.)  Robert, with a newly-acquired girlfriend, dresses more fashionably (in costumes, designed by Sarah Munro, that seem inspired by those of Italian Futurist performances of the 1920s).  But soon Robert upgrades to Golem Version 2, which is trickier and more powerful.  “Move with the times or you’ll be left behind,” Golem 2 repeats as it takes more and more control of Robert’s life.
                                                                                           
As Golem becomes more and more prominent in Robert’s affairs, the street of independent shops along which Robert walks is rapidly taken over by chain stores all bearing the name “Go” Something-Or-Other (“Go Pasta,” “Go Friends,” “Go Fiends”—even a travel agency called Go Away); the divey little hang-outs where Robert and his friends used to go turn into strip joints.  It’s all indicative of the take-over of mindless consumerism and corporate branding.  The specter of mass-conformism takes hold of Robert’s formerly individual and slightly anarchic world as 1927’s Golem asks, “Do you want to be a nobody or an everybody?”  It’s an old threat—as familiar as the aforementioned HAL computer or Čapek’s R.U.R. (which, Barritt contends, “suggests that one day mankind will never have to work, left to think and create and better himself”): our labor-saving devices make us so dependent on technology and mechanical assistance that they become the masters and we humans, the servants.  (No less a scientific luminary than Stephen Hawking told the BBC in 2014: “The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race.”)  “Although we are very reliant on the technology,” says Andrade, “we also dictate the technology and are constantly dirtying it up.”  The universe of 1927’s Golem, however, is so cleverly depicted that its hoariness is not a tremendous detriment.    

As 1927’s own mission statement asserts, combining live performance with animation is the troupe’s stock-in-trade, its principal focus.  The entire performative experience becomes cinematic and multi-dimensional.  As a play, Golem lacks a number of attributes—if it were longer than its 90 intermissionless minutes it would have become enervating, for instance—but the actors interact so seamlessly with the animated environment that the production feels like a single, integrated entity rather than disparate technologies stitched together.  (In addition to Barritt’s animation and film work and Munro’s costumes, Golem has a projection screen design by James Lewis, sound designed by Laurence Owen, and music by Lillian Henley, all of which are as important to the production as the actors and the animation.)  One reason might be that the performances of the actors, as directed by Andrade, and Barritt’s film animation are developed at the same time, with Barritt attending rehearsals and using input from the stage work to guide and inform his graphics.  So we see animated-film neighborhoods pass by as the live actors mime-walk down the sidewalk, live characters heads popping out of cartoon windows in the backdrop, or snoring ZZZZZZZZ’s appearing on the backdrop above live actors’ sleeping heads.  (In one wonderful scene, the claymation creature holds a cartoon umbrella over live-actor Turner’s head—and it looks absolutely believably real.)  As the actors do their work, however, production technical manager Helen Mugridge controls when the animations happen in real time in line with the 500-plus cues.  At the same time, live on stage, Henley on the piano and Close on percussion synchronize Henley’s silent-movie score with the technical cues so that the live music, the animation, and the acting all work in sync.

The technique of coordinating live actors with animation on a screen isn’t a cake-walk, apparently.  “By interweaving a near-constant stream of live animation with the performers’ actions, 1927 requires that its actors stay close to the 300-square-foot backdrop on which the animation is projected,” observes New York Times reporter Eric Goode.  “But not too close.  Bumping into it also interferes with the illusion.”  To fit with the animation, the actors’ marks for every position are set out on the floor in glow-tape in a “baffling array of dashes, plus signs, arrows and other glyphs.”  (Goode described the stage at the Spoleto Festival USA as “riddled . . . with ‘spikes’: pieces of glow-in-the-dark tape designed to help actors find their exact spots on an unlit stage.”)

Barritt explains: “Try as we may to deepen the playing area, it doesn’t really work.  The actors really can’t interact with the animations that way.”  Even an actor turning her or his head to look at an image on the screen “would ruin the visual.”  Goode calls it “useful but risky technology [that] fits perfectly with the subject matter of ‘Golem’” and dubs it the company’s “droll Edward Gorey-meets-Max Fleischer aesthetic.”  (Gorey, 1925-2000, is most known for his eerie cartoons in such publications as the New Yorker.  Fleischer, 1883-1972, was an early animated filmmaker who between 1918 and 1957 created, among other films, the cartoon characters Betty Boop and Koko the Clown, and the series of shorts of Popeye the Sailor and Superman.  He often used live action in his animated movies.)  Actress Turner affirms, “It’s like trying to make a play and a film at the same time.”  Of working with Golem on the screen, Turner says, “Getting the logic down of how to interact with him took me a while.”  Will Close, who plays Phil Sylocate among others, explains: “The way Suze [Andrade] directs is to make as much as possible in the animated world three-dimensional, so that draws out Golem.  He’s not just on the screen; you can really feel that he’s at the table, which is partly achieved by animation and staging techniques but actually the acting goes such a long way with it, and he comes out of the screen if it’s done in the right way.” 

The animation isn’t just a backdrop, the projected version of painted scenery in front of which the performers act, it’s also the play’s environment, the virtual version of three-dimensional constructed scenery and the actors pop in and out of projected windows and doors.  (Think an animated rendition of the Joke Wall on the old TV show, Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In.)  Whether constructed, 3-D set pieces or projected animation, however, both scenic environments are stylistically of a piece so that designers Esme Appleton and Barritt’s flats and wall fragments and Barritt’s projections coordinate to create a variation of a silent-movie world.  In addition to Henley’s music, many of Barritt’s cinematic techniques continue this evocation of the silents of the ’20s.  One frequent practice is ending a scene by “Looneying,” a fade-out that ends in a small, black circle that shrinks to nothing as at the end of a Looney Tunes cartoon, a tactic that just reeks of old-time flickers.  (The actors’ Chaplinesque walk further evokes the silent-film era.)

Golem’s costume and make-up style is another continuation of the silent-movie look.  Sarah Munro’s designs include mostly monochromatic (in the beige scale), slightly geeky clothing (lots of sweater-vests) that might have looked at home in the 1920s, paired with the Futurist attire I mentioned earlier, a theater and art style that was also in vogue in the ’20s (and, perhaps not coincidentally, focused on technology and modern engineering, among its other concentrations).  The characters’ make-up is also based on silent movies, with while face-paint, heavy eye make-up, and Harpo-Marx wigs.  (Robert’s is a brick-red “Carrot Top” afro which, with his round-lensed, black-framed spectacles, contributed greatly to his nerdy appearance.)

Given the needs of this show, the acting was magnificent.  (As Christopher Isherwood of the New York Times rightly observed, “The performers are not required to do much in the way of emoting.  The characters are essentially cartoons themselves.”)  It’s unquestionably idiosyncratic and even eccentric, not suitable for ordinary pays from the Greeks to Shakespeare to David Mamet and Nicky Silver.  But for Golem (and probably most, if not all, of 1927’s output: “It doesn’t really differ that greatly” from the troupe’s other shows, says Barritt), it was extraordinary.  I’ve tried to reveal some of what’s demanded of the actors to coordinate with the animation, but aside from—or outside of—that, the troupe’s performance style is demanding and exacting.  Clearly, not only the actor’s blocking must be precise for the illusion of interaction between the live action and the animation to work, but the timing has to be virtually perfect so that the actor’s lines and movements mesh with the background and the animated characters.  (This is where Mugridge’s expertise comes in.)  1927 has this down pat.

The acting company is, needless to say, an exemplary ensemble.  But it’s an unusual kind of ensemble.  In most ensemble companies, the actors all work together in a way that makes them appear to be parts of an integrated whole and no individual performance stands out above any of the others.  The actors are like moving parts of a performance machine.  In Golem, the actors worked together seamlessly enough, like that performance machine—but they each stood out individually as a unique and differentiated persona, even several personae since most of the cast plays more than one character.  Will Close’s Phil Sylocate was as distinctive as his Julian, one of Robert’s co-workers.  Rose Robinson’s Gran stoods out as clearly as did her Joy.  In fact, if I’m honest, I’d never have guessed that these roles were played by the same actors if I hadn’t looked at the cast list after the performance.  And yet, taken together, the whole company was of a single piece—as if, if they’ll pardon the unintended implication, Barritt had created them along with Golem and the denizens and structures of the neighborhood.  As a theatrical experience, watching 1927’s Golem was truly exhilarating. 

I’m going to comment about one performance, not because it was better than the others or somehow violated the ensembleness of the production but because one peculiarity enhances its effectiveness.  The performance was Shamira Turner as Robert and the peculiarity was the casting.  I have no idea why Andrade cast a woman as Robert; I know that she’s new to the company and Golem is her first 1927 production.  Her work in the show was flawless—and I didn’t know the actor was female until, again, I looked at the program afterwards.  But what I did notice was that this Robert seemed very young, little more than a teenager, and very innocent.  I kept thinking the actor was a kid.  (Upon considering the performance, I’d also add it was reminiscent of Charlie Chaplin, which may have been the source of Turner’s mime-walk style.)  Not only did this make Robert vulnerable and open to influence and manipulation, but also endearing and engaging.  A harder or more resistant—more mature, shall I say—Robert would have damaged the play’s performance, I’m convinced.  Putting Turner in the part clinched it—at least for me.  I don’t know if Andrade knew this going in and acted on that intuition, but even if it was just a happy accident or the result of necessity (which, as we all know, can be a mother . . .), it worked out like gangbusters.  (As those great philosophers Keith Richards and Mick Jagger once said:  If you try sometime you find / You get what you need.)

When asked about the band members of Annie and the Underdogs, Barritt laid out his vision of the theme of Golem:

These characters are representative of a politically impotent generation, in other words our generation [Barritt was born in 1958, making him 57-58] and all of those that are growing up behind us.  Everyone can see what is wrong with the world.  It is not a difficult thing to pick apart the problems with the way industrialized consumer-driven democracy doesn’t work.  What is difficult is finding a solution: something that generations of people brought up on the sickly sweet heroin of market-driven popular culture are finding impossible ways to comprehend, let alone do anything about. . . .  And what are we doing?  Making a massive theater show about the subject that will be viewed by a, relatively speaking, elite class of wealthy consumers . . . I rest my case.

But a theme alone doesn’t make a play.  Longtime ROTters will remember that I have a two-part criterion for good theater: it must do more than tell a story and it must be theatrical, that is, use the unique assets of the live stage as much as possible.  Well, there’s little doubt that Golem is theatrical—it uses the attributes of live performance and then some—but the story part is deficient.  Now, 1927 has a point it wants to make, to be sure, so on the surface Golem meets both parts of the criterion—but it’s such a cliché that it’s little more than an excuse to hang the cleverly told story on, like a wire hanger holding up an elaborate, magical costume.  (It doesn’t help, at least in the articulating, that Barritt often sounds like an old-line socialist reciting Marx . . . and I don’t mean Groucho!  Fortunately, that’s not in the play, only in Barritt’s head.)  If it weren’t for the stunning and mesmerizing tech of 1927’s production, Golem would be downright silly.  Happily, however, that production is more than sufficient to enliven the 90-minute performance enough to outweigh the inadequacies of the text. 

Andrade’s script is also too enamored of the distracting sidebar, the little vignette that’s curious and perhaps emotionally evocative, but has little to do with the story or its point save atmospherics (a melancholy French chanteur named Les Miserables, played by Close, for example), and indulges this penchant often enough to dilute the overall impact of Golem; even Annie’s punk band seems to have been an idea conceived originally to be central and significant, but which now adds little to the play.  Furthermore, in the end, the revolutionary impulse that Andrade and Barritt seem to want to inculcate comes to naught since the consumerism represented by the Golems is inescapable, like the proliferation of the computer and the smart phone in our world.  Resistance, it seems, is futile.

Show-Score once again used out-of-town performances in its tally of reviews, so I’ve recalculated its findings to include only notices of the Lincoln Center Festival appearance of Golem.  (This includes a review in the Philadelphia Inquirer, even though it’s an out-of-town paper.)  Show-Score surveyed nine reviews of the New York City presentation of which 89% were positive notices and 11% were mixed; there were no negative reviews in Show-Score’s sample.  Golem received an overall score of 84 for the New York notices alone. 

In the Wall Street Journal, Heidi Waleson, affirming that 1927’s “silent movie” approach in its previous productions “was a lot of fun,” wrote that Golem “is even more dizzily inventive and colorful,” even if the play ends up “a heavy-handed metaphor for the pernicious rise of consumerism.”  Though Waleson determined, “At 90 minutes, the piece feels long, and the music . . . is a nattering background,” she found that “the variety and deployment of Mr. Barritt’s deceptively simple drawings are astonishing” and “so well done that it is sometimes not entirely clear what is real and what is not.”  Calling 1927’s Golem a “sinister work of science fiction” in am New York, Matt Windman noted that it has “a plot that sort of resembles ‘Little Shop of Horrors.’”  Windman reported that the performance “meticulously combines five clown-like performers, booming narration, live music and film animation, leading to a wholly coordinated piece of theater that defies ordinary characterization, resembling a trippy art installation and an animated movie brought to life.”  “[T]old in a visual style,” the amNY reviewer wrote, it “recalls both the European avant-garde movements of the early 20th century and claymation cartoons meant for children.  It’s Fritz Lang’s ‘Metropolis’ meets ‘Pee-wee’s Playhouse.’”

Christopher Isherwood, calling Golem “visually dazzling” and “mind-pinching” in the Times, labeled it “a fable that feels both contemporary and ageless, combining live performance and music with sophisticated stop-motion and traditional animation.”  Isherwood gave a great deal of credit “for its seamless ingenuity” to Barritt, “the creator of its kaleidoscopic film, design and animation.”  The Timesman characterized the setting as “fantastical” and said it was “as lively a presence as any of the performers onstage.”  Isherwood declared, “The integration of Mr. Barritt’s animation and the work of the cast is the show’s most singular and bewitching achievement.”  “For all its dark intimations,” the Times reviewer reported, Golem “remains playfully comic in tone and spirit.”  He concluded, “The moral of ‘Golem’ isn’t drawn in particularly subtle strokes.  But its tart critique of a modern world. . . has been imbued with such hallucinatory visual allure that your attention is held fast . . . .”  And he added a cautionary epilogue: “And after watching it your attitude toward your smartphone may require some readjusting.”

I don’t usually include out-of-town papers in my review survey, but in this case, the Philadelphia Inquirer ran the only mixed notice in Show-Score’s tally of reviews of the Lincoln Center Festival presentation of Golem, so I figured it’d be important to record it.  David Patrick Stearns (the paper’s music reviewer), giving a brief précis of the use of computer-generated animation in live theater and, especially, opera (1927 will bring its version of Magic Flute to Opera Philadelphia in the fall of 2017), characterized Golem as “told in the broadly satirical manner of The Simpsons.”  Stearns stated, “Beyond bringing [Golem] to life, the animation . . . was mainly of use for secondary matters, almost like incidental music, bolstering transitional passages and scene-setting, although it was so imposing that everything else . . . was secondary.”  The actors, he added, “were too often reduced to narrative automatons.”  (As you might expect from a true music guy, Stearns decided that the Magic Flute characters wouldn’t likely suffer the same fate because “Mozart’s music gives his stick-figure characters a warmth and humanity that cool, more impersonal digitally-crafted imagery can’t take away.”  It’d be interesting to see if he’s right, or if Stearns has to eat his own words next year.)

Show-Score didn’t include the Village Voice in its round-up, so Helen Shaw’s less-than-positive review was omitted from the ratings.  Describing 1927’s production style as “a hybrid form of avant-retro video-theater,” she called Golem “chilly,” the play a “projection-saturated fable,” and the sound-mix “muddy,” rendering “some lines inaudible.”  All of this “muted” the production’s message, Shaw affirmed.  “If you’ve never seen the troupe’s work, you’ll find it a genuine wonder, a gorgeous amalgam of image and wit,” she concluded, but lamented, “Unfortunately, even such aesthetic sophistication can wear badly.”  She complained that “the group’s delight in computer animation has hamstrung the show’s Luddite message.”  “[W]orst of all,” the Voice reviewer wrote in her final analysis, “writer-director Suzanne Andrade doesn't sustain her critique.”  In Time Out New York, David Cote opened his review by explaining:

To describe the acting in Golem as cartoonish is simply factual—though I have used the term slightingly before. It’s not just the jerky walking, the rubber-faced grimaces or the nasal vocal inflections. The performers are literally embedded within a giant animated projection in this wickedly ingenious satire on consumerism and conformism.

Cote added that “rarely do you see those varied elements absorbed and transformed in such dynamic fashion” as in 1927’s “ghoulishly effective allegory.”  “Yes,” remarked the man from TONY, “the Golem is the Internet, but the critique comes with so much quirk and weirdness, it has the dark enchantment of every good fable.”  He dubbed Barritt’s animation “brilliant” (“dazzling [to] the eye,” Cote wrote) and Andrade’s writing “witty, broad and fetchingly lyrical”; the “sheer technical achievement . . .,” Cote summed up, “is rather mind-blowing, and the frisky, adorable performers endow their two-dimensional costars with three-dimensional weight.”  In his final comment, Cote quipped, “It’s a rare show that measures success by how well its actors blend into the scenery.

In the sole cyber review I read, Jeremy Gerard called Golem “ingenious and ultimately quite moving” on the Huffington Post.  Combined with “a mesmerizing score,” Andrade and Barritt have “produced an eye- and ear-filling riff” on Meyrink’s novel.  The play, Gerard remarked, “reminded me in places of Elmer Rice’s The Adding Machine (1923), on the one hand, and Spike Jonez’s Her, on the other.”  Then the HP review-writer presented his “quibble”: 1927’s Golem “is so charming . . . that the ontological tale gets pretty lost.  And so the general takeaway—technology bad, punk-rock good—seemed kinda banal.”  Still, Gerard concluded that “the show is a wonder, and here I am, still thinking about it.”


23 August 2016

Re-Reading Shaw – Plays from 1918 to 1933

by Kirk Woodward

[This is the fourth in the five-part series of commentary on George Bernard Shaw’s works by Kirk Woodward, based on his reading of the Complete Plays with Prefaces (Dodd, Mead & Company, 1963).  Parts 1, 2, and 3 of “Re-Reading Shaw,” covering plays written between 1885 and 1902, 1901 and 1909, and 1909 and 1920, were posted on 3 and 18 July and 3 August, respectively.  Though you can easily read the segments in any order you wish, I do recommend going back and catching Kirk’s earlier remarks if you haven’t been following the series because his thoughts on the great Irish writer’s works and ideas are well worth hearing.  Kirk’s been a fan of Shaw for a long time, I daresay since his high school days at least, and while he recognizes the playwright’s errors and misjudgments, he has a pretty clear view of the man’s indisputable strengths as well.  (Kirk’s written before on GBS for ROT; see “Bernard Shaw, Pop Culture Critic,” posted on  5 September 2012, and “Eric Bentley on Bernard Shaw.” 3 December 2015.) ]

BACK TO METHUSELAH (1918-1920 / 1922) – I avoided this play – actually a linked series of five relatively short plays – for years, possibly because its subtitle, “A Metabiological Pentatuch,” scared me off. Shaw says he wanted to write a “world classic,” on the order of Ibsen’s Peer Gynt or Goethe’s Faust (1806 and 1831).

Frustrated by the slow pace of change in society, he envisioned a world in which one or two, then a few, then an increasing number, then all people would live not for perhaps seventy years but for three hundred years or longer. Given all this time, Shaw felt (or claimed to feel), people would become wiser and would handle life better.

This idea – one can hardly call it an argument, because it’s only stated and not argued – strikes me as riddled with flaws. Is there any reason to believe that longer lives would be wiser ones? This seems highly debatable to me, and Shaw certainly doesn’t “prove” it. It seems to me his thesis comes down to hoping that humans will eventually do better than they’ve done so far. I can’t imagine sustaining that thesis for some 400 pages, and I don’t think Shaw sustains it, either.

Isn’t it possible that people with shorter life spans would accomplish more because they were aware that they only had so many years left to them? I have known this to happen more than once. And do people in general live as though they know what their life spans will be? Don’t we live to a significant extent “in the moment” – and if we don’t, shouldn’t we?

Shaw promotes what he calls the “Life Force” (borrowing the term, and the idea of “creative evolution,” from Henri Bergson, 1859-1941), and in support of this idea he employs a remarkable amount of Christian imagery in Methuselah (and elsewhere), but he doesn’t extend that belief to the survival of personality beyond death; he finds the idea of immortality “terrifying.”

Well, then, would people find living three hundred years less terrifying than living seventy? For that matter, by Shaw’s logic shouldn’t people who believe in a “life after death” be more productive and wiser, rather than less? But Shaw dismisses that idea out of hand.

The evidence of wisdom in the “long livers” of the plays is scanty. They are unable to understand the simplest metaphor (Shaw mentions this, then drops the subject); they are completely self-absorbed; the ones who live the longest are downright scary. They kill without compunction. Exactly what is this presentation supposed to persuade us to believe?

Eric Bentley points out that, as a matter of fact, Shaw posits two means for improving humanity. One is living longer; the other is putting Asians in charge of the world. (Race is a frequent subject in the five plays, always to the disparagement of the English.)

One of the many garbled lines of thought in Methuselah is the issue that we might call talent versus experience. Shaw’s idea of extended lives assumes that experience will make people wiser. This is debatable; possibly wisdom is a given while experience is a variable? In any case, Shaw is aware of cases – Mozart, for example – in which a person seems to be born with remarkable ability that centuries of experience could not provide. But Shaw does not follow up on this hint; it does not lead where he wants to go.

And the other side of that coin is that Shaw recognizes that learned characteristics are not passed on from one individual to another. How then are the Life Force’s “experiments” productive? One can point to examples of people’s influence that continue, sometimes, for years; but nothing says they will withstand the fall of a civilization, and war often reverses years of human progress. And what about lives that have no influence, people that live in obscurity and die in silence? Are they total failures of the Life Force?

It seems to me that Shaw’s “Life Force” is really the Victorian idea of Progress, dressed up. That’s an idea that notoriously today is hard to accept for many people.

Wikipedia says that “Critics found the five plays strikingly uneven in quality and invention.” Truer words were seldom spoken.

In the Plays, Methuselah itself is preceded by a fragment called “A Glimpse of the Domesticity of the Brothers Barnabas,” a draft of an act that was discarded before the play was produced, interesting primarily because it contains a very funny spoof of Shaw’s friend the writer G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936), impersonated as Immenso Champeroon.

Following that, the first three plays of the five strike me as almost unreadable. The characters are routine, the gags (they are gags) frequently feel forced, and the logic of the situation, as I said, is all over the place. 

Then, unexpectedly, comes a piece of pathos: in the fourth play, “The Tragedy of an Elderly Gentleman,” the gentleman in question is clearly Shaw, or close enough – a senior citizen too old to adapt to the new times, but by no means valueless, holding on for dear life to his ideas as best he can. But the long livers are both unpleasant and ruthless, and the Elderly Gentleman comes to a bad end. In the final play the envisioned future makes one happy to be a short liver.

Two observations seem to me useful in considering Methuselah. One is by Arthur and Barbara Gelb in their book O’Neill (1962), their excellent biography of the playwright Eugene O’Neill. They note that O’Neill, who had children, showed minimal interest in them and looked backwards in nearly all his plays, while Shaw, who was childless, invested his attention in the future.

Methuselah is not in my opinion a satisfactory vision of that future, or a desirable one, but the point is that Shaw did care about the future; he wanted it to be better than the present.

The other observation is by G. K. Chesterton, who described Shaw as a man who, when he notices that the baby’s bathwater is dirty, says, “Get a new baby.” Since humanity is living in unsatisfactory ways, Shaw says, get a new species.

Three oddities about Methuselah:

The saying that the late Senator Robert Kennedy frequently quoted, “Some see things as they are and ask why. I see things as they might be and ask why not” is from the first section of the play – spoken by the serpent in the Garden of Eden!

And Shaw envisions two elements of today’s life that did not exist in his time – cellular phones (represented in Methuselah as tuning forks) and Internet “sexting” – by a politician!

JITTA’S ATONEMENT (1922 / 1923) is a collaboration with Siegfried Trebitsch (1868-1956), Shaw’s translator into German and also a playwright. Shaw’s relationship with Trebitsch is worth a play in itself. Most commentators feel that he was an inept translator, but Shaw credited him with making him a success in Germany before there was much interest in his plays in England.

Shaw, wanting to help Trebitsch financially, took the German’s most recent play and created an English version of it. Shaw was hardly adept in German:

At first I was preoccupied with a quite minor matter. I can neither claim knowledge of the German language nor plead ignorance of it.

He had someone make a literal translation of the play, and working with it and the German text, fashioned an adaptation that made a play of complications and suspense about adultery – a “well-made play” (with a strong Ibsen influence) – into an absorbing and highly intelligent melodrama, an intense and exciting play. Shaw made the ending more positive than Trebitsch’s conclusion. He says:

Trebitsch, being a German poet, has a certain melancholic delicacy which escapes my comparatively barbarous and hilarious occidental touch. I could not help suggesting, by a few translator’s treacheries here and there, that the ill-assorted pair settle down on reasonable human terms, and find life bearable after all.

Once again, Shaw’s professionalism is impressive. The original of Jitta is the kind of play Shaw seldom endorsed as a reviewer, but he takes his assignment seriously and makes a version of it that is both entertaining and humane. 

SAINT JOAN (1923) – According to Holroyd’sBernard Shaw, after Methusela Shaw thought he had written himself out. However, he had thought about Joan of Arc for some time, and her canonization by the Roman Catholic Church in 1920, along with urging from his wife, fired his imagination. His masterful play about Joan is widely assumed to have clinched his winning the Nobel Prize. (The prize was actually awarded for the year 1925, leading Shaw to say that he won the prize for a year he hadn’t written anything.) 

After Methusela, Saint Joan is a relief. Joan was a real person, and although Shaw certainly makes her over in his image (and, according to Holroyd, also the image of T. E. Lawrence, 1888-1935, “Lawrence of Arabia”), he does not indulge in flights of fancy that don’t take off, but dramatizes the actual events of her life – again, of course, in his own way.

His preface to the play makes interesting reading, although it shares some dubious characteristics with other prefaces: he exaggerates, he presents opinions as known and confirmed facts, and when you think he’s said everything he could possibly say, he still has pages to go.

His perpetual argument with the idea of a personal God leads him to use the Christian vocabulary in sometimes inventive and sometimes unscrupulous ways. One wonders if the Roman Catholic Church was grateful for his advice on how it ought to reform.

Nevertheless, he is on the trail of facts, he is entitled to his own opinions, and his evaluation of the Joan literature is that of a writer perceptively writing about other writers.

In the play Saint Joan, the characters are so well drawn and the dialogue so interesting that one can believe Shaw is giving an exact picture of what actually happened. He is, as he acknowledges, giving his picture. The fact that the trial scene is based on the original transcripts lends the play a patina of authenticity; but the rest of the dialogue in the play is Shaw’s invention.

He writes candidly that in particular he makes Joan’s primary antagonist, Bishop Cauchon, more reasonable than the record supports. In making that point, Shaw reveals a major principle about the way he writes dialogue:

The things I represent these [characters] as saying are the things [that Shaw believes] they actually would have said if they had known what they were really doing.

The characters, in other words, see themselves more clearly than people ordinarily do – they reveal themselves as though they were as conscious as Shaw is of their natures. One sees this technique throughout Shaw’s plays. A particularly glorious example is Eliza Doolittle’s father Alfred in Pygmalion, whose lectures on middle class morality are both hilarious and extraordinarily self-aware.

A common objection to Shaw’s plays is that he writes them like a pamphleteer. This is not correct, for the most part. But it is true that Shaw’s characters tend to talk like pamphleteers. They state positions and support them with arguments that probably would not often be heard in everyday conversation.

Their awareness is Shaw’s, and he lends it to the characters; but using such a dramatic convention does not make Shaw a propagandist. As he puts it, the characters are (usually) saying what they could say “if they had known what they were really doing.”

In his preface Shaw mentions the people who feel the play is too long, and could be easily cut. He has great fun describing what the play would be like if certain theater managers got their hands on it. But he is certainly aware that Scene 4 of Saint Joan, for example, is a lengthy discussion between English and French church officials and soldiers, in which the plot is not advanced and Joan does not appear.

But the scene is central to the play, because the characters give voice to the mighty forces that will collide over Joan, burn her, experience her influence for centuries, and eventually declare her a saint. For Shaw, and I think for us, that’s where the real story of the play is.

In many ways Joan is the same woman we see in other plays by Shaw – the woman who sees through men’s pretentions, and easily shows them up. And in many ways the men in the play are familiar Shaw characters too – representatives of public positions that in private they know are foolish, but that they still defend, for reasons that are either selfish or expedient.

The irony, of course, is that Joan really does believe in God, really does believe in the church, really does believe in France – which is more than can always be said of the men who kill her, or connive at her killing.

THE APPLE CART (1929) – Shaw would never admit it, but he was not above seeming to agree with other people now and then. The Apple Cart led many to believe he approved of monarchy, because its protagonist is King Magnus, who thwarts political opposition by announcing that he intends to resign his throne, run for office, and win.

In his preface to the play, Shaw claims that his play teaches lessons about democracy, not monarchy, and that’s probably correct, but he also had a fondness for monarchs – don’t deny it, Mr. Shaw! – particularly Queen Victoria (1819-1901), as Sidney Weintraub documents in his book Shaw’s People (Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996). A monarch, after all, though not a superman, does have a leg up.

The preface includes some trenchant observations on democracy (and a speech by Shaw on the subject as well), but little of that matters in the play itself, which is set in an unspecified future and has a dreamlike atmosphere despite its political setting.

The nation involved is not really England; the cabinet does not really act like a cabinet, or the King like a king. (Noel Coward played Magnus in a 1953 revival, one of the few roles not written by himself that he played; he must have been marvelous.) Crises turn into bits; arguments turn into quips; the big political event in the second act – I won’t give away the surprise, such as it is – is entirely imaginary.

The play is, basically, a fairy tale, an almost absurdist comedy about politics. He hardly even tries to keep the elements of the play in touch with each other. An interlude between acts shows the King and his mistress (modeled, Holroyd says, on the actress Mrs. Patrick Campbell, 1865-1940); and the Queen, who appears immediately afterward, apparently sounds a great deal like Mrs. Shaw herself. What are they doing there?

Oscar Wilde’s observation that “I can resist anything except temptation” becomes, in The Apple Cart: “I never resist temptation, because I have found that things that are bad for me do not tempt me.” I am afraid I do not believe that.

TOO TRUE TO BE GOOD (1931 / 1932) – a brilliant title. The preface begins with an assertion that almost makes it seem Shaw has run out of things to say and is scraping bottom:

Our capitalistic system, with its golden exceptions of idle richery and its leaden rule of anxious poverty, is as desperate a failure from the point of view of the rich as of the poor.

One recalls the song in the movie White Christmas (1954) about the sad plight of generals after they retire from the Army. . . . Shaw’s point, of course, is that capitalism is not good for anybody. But it is awfully difficult to make the case that making lots of money harms the rich – however true that may be – without causing some eye-rolling.

Shaw does not improve things when he asserts that the best system for administration is that of the Roman Catholic Church (with a nod to the recently converted G. K. Chesterton), which he sees as identical to that of Stalin’s Communist Party.

The play itself has nothing to do with any of that. It finds Shaw so discouraged by World War I and its effects that he can’t maintain his characteristic optimism:

They are all . . . falling, falling, falling endlessly and hopelessly through a void in which they can find no footing. . . . This dreadful new nakedness: the nakedness of the souls who until now have always disguised themselves from one another in beautiful impossible idealisms to enable them to bear one another’s company. The iron lightning of war has burnt great rents in those angelic veils. . . . Our souls go in rags now. . . . I have no Bible, no creed: the war has shot both out of my hands.

In such a world, there is no point writing a play that tries to convince people of ideas; what would it convince them of? So the play is fantastical, close to absurdist, barely connected from one end to the other. It does tell, more or less, the story of a pampered young lady who regains her health when she runs away with a pair of criminals.

However, this summary ignores most of the play, which begins with a giant microbe sitting by her bedside; introduces a British Army officer who is primarily interested in painting, and an enlisted man based again on T. E. Lawrence (“Lawrence of Arabia”); and ends with the speech from which I just quoted, a message of despair.

There is energy to the play; but it is the energy of desperation. Audiences found it mystifying, and it had a short initial run. Perhaps it was in more than one sense too true to be good. [editor’s note: For more details on Too Good, see my ROT reports “Two Shaw Plays (Shaw Festival 2006),” 25 September 2012, and “The 2006 Shaw Festival (Part 2),” 11 December 2015.  ~Rick]

“Village Wooing” (1933 / 1934) appears to have been inspired by a woman named Jisabella Lyth, the postmistress of Ayot St. Lawrence, the village where Shaw lived. She and her husband had hardly moved there when he died, leaving her not well off.

Shaw, ordering stamps from her, would send each request in a signed letter. He never acknowledged his purpose, but she was able to sell the autographs and supplement her income.

Shaw imagined himself – although he denied it – as a widower increasingly involved, over three scenes, with Mrs. Lyth as one of his unerringly deft and funny women, much like Gracie Allen (1906-1964; American vaudeville and TV comedian and wife of George Burns). The play is a delight, charming and fun. The woman, as nearly always in Shaw’s plays, is an instrument of the Life Force and gets her man.

ON THE ROCKS (1933) begins with a jaw-dropping preface on what Shaw calls “extermination” or “killing as a political function.” “Extermination,” he writes, “must be put on a scientific basis if it is ever to be carried out humanely and apologetically as well as thoroughly.”

The cheerful tone of the discussion is chilling. “Every Government is obliged to practice [extermination] on a scale varying from the execution of a single murderer to the slaughter of millions of quite innocent persons,” he writes – quite a sliding scale.

As an example, he uses Jesus. Then it occurs to him that the execution of Jesus was not a particularly good idea, Jesus being the kind of non-conformist Shaw prizes. So Shaw begins to talk about tolerance, leading up to an imagined dialogue between Jesus and Pilate that Jesus actually wins, due to his cleverly quoting both himself and Shaw:

By their fruits ye shall know them. Beware how you kill a thought that is new to you. For that thought may be the foundation of the Kingdom of God on earth.

This roller coaster ride of a preface has almost nothing to do with the play, in which a Prime Minister, faced with social upheaval, takes a pile of books by Marx with him on a rest cure and returns to propose a Socialist overhaul of the country. At first it looks like he may get away with it; but it’s too late, the country is on the rocks for real, and he resigns.

This bare-bones description of the play ought to suggest its nature as an exercise in wish fulfillment for Shaw that ends in deep disappointment even though it is his own fantasy. It’s also true that the dialogue is generally lively and entertaining. Holroyd says that at recent productions, people have been surprised at how timely the play is.

However, the storyline wanders; domestic issues wind through the play, tangentially related to its theme, and their resolution follows the climax of the political dilemma, a strange anticlimax.

Generally, instead of plot, Shaw is writing situations; instead of characterization, he is presenting personality traits. Instead of names, the characters could just have their functions written on signboards – “The Socialist,” “The Royalist,” and so on.

[I’ve been publishing Kirk’s Shaw series one section every couple of weeks, as you’ve seen.  Part 5, the final installment covering plays from 1934 to 1950, will be coming up on 2 September.  I hope ROTters will return to the blog to read Kirk’s final comments.]

18 August 2016

'The Merchant of Venice' (Lincoln Center Festival 2016)



On Sunday, 24 July, Diana, my usual theater companion, and I took in our second of three Lincoln Center Festival shows this summer, the evening performance of the Shakespeare’s Globe mounting of The Merchant of Venice.  (The first was Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme from C.I.C.T./Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord, the report on which was posted on 28 July, and the third was 1927’s Golem, on which I’ll be reporting in about a week-and-a-half.)  The attraction for this production—we’d both seen Merchant nine years ago at Theatre for a New Audience with F. Murray Abraham in the lead (see my archival report, posted on 28 February 2011)—was its star, Jonathan Pryce, the Welsh actor who made his Globe début as Shylock in this staging.  (Diana and I had also seen Pryce perform before, as Davies in Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2012.  My report on that performance was posted on 14 May 2012.) 

This production of Merchant, directed by Jonathan Munby, was at the Globe 23 April-7 June before going out on tour.  It’s first stop was in Liverpool (9-16 July) before traveling to New York City from 20 to 24 July in the Rose Theater in Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Frederick P. Rose Hall (in the Time Warner Center on Columbus Circle).  From here, the production makes two more stops in the U.S.: the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. (27-30 July), and Chicago (9-14 August).  Merchant will play five gigs in China after that: Guangzhou (Canton; 2-4 September), Hong Kong (7-11 September), Beijing (15-18 September), Shanghai (22-25 September), and Nanjing (28 September).  The show returns to home base at London’s Globe (4-15 October) before playing in its namesake city, Venice, from 19 to 21 October. 

Shakespeare’s Globe, founded by the American actor and director Sam Wanamaker (1919-93), is dedicated to exploring Shakespeare’s work and the playhouses for which he wrote.  In 1970, Wanamaker established the Shakespeare Globe Trust to research, plan, and ultimately build an accurate reconstruction of the original 17th-century Globe Theatre in which Shakespeare’s company, the  Lord Chamberlain’s Men (later, the King’s Men), performed.  The trust’s work proceeded based on academic research and “best-guess” conjecture, creating plans drawing on the scant record of Elizabethan theater construction from the few records of other contemporaneous theaters near the putative site of the Globe on the south bank of the Thames.  Then luck struck.  In 1989, the foundations of the Rose, a theater much like what the Globe was believed to look like, were uncovered at a site near where the Globe was felt to have stood.  That same year, a portion of the Globe’s own foundations were unearthed, giving Wanamaker’s trust much actual information in which to base their conclusions about the appearance, size, and construction of Shakespeare’s main theater.  Eventually, the rest of the Globe’s foundations, on which had been built not only the 1614 later building, rebuilt after a fire the year before and then torn down by the Puritans in 1642, but the original 1599 theater Shakespeare and his company built, were uncovered.

The reconstruction of the new Globe began in 1993, the year Sam Wanamaker was made an Honorary Commander of the British Empire in September and died at age 74 in December.  Only partially completed, Shakespeare’s Globe opened for a “workshop” season in 1995 and then a  “prologue” season in ’96.  The theater, as close to a replica of the original Elizabethan theater as can reasonably be created given our knowledge of Shakespeare’s 17th-century building and modern safety regulations, began regular performances in 1997, débuting with an all-male production of Henry V starring Mark Rylance, the new company’s first artistic director.  Aside from its public performances, the theater offers workshops, lectures, and staged readings, as well as an exhibition and guided tour of the Globe Theatre.

Shakespeare’s Globe presents plays, principally between May and the first week of October because the stage and seats are the only areas of the theater that are covered (the yard, or pit, where the “groundlings” stand, is open to the elements), ranging from productions employing some of the original practices of Shakespeare’s era to premières of new plays.  Every play in the Shakespearean canon has now been performed at the Globe.  In addition to the Elizabethan Globe Theatre, the company added the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, an indoor Jacobean theater (lit by candles!), in 2014 to offer a year-round program of plays, concerts, and special events.

The new Globe’s outreach programs include the 2012 Globe to Globe, the theater’s contribution to the London 2012 Festival and Cultural Olympiad.  Globe to Globe presented every Shakespeare play, each in a different language.  In 2014, the theater launched a worldwide tour of Hamlet, whose ambition was to perform in every nation on earth by April 2016; it played in 197 countries.  Shakespeare’s Globe tours productions throughout the U.K., Europe, the United States, and Asia.   

Along with educational outreach programs, the Globe films many of its productions and releases them to movie theaters as Globe on Screen productions and on video.  In 2014, the company launched the Globe Player, which makes its back catalogue of productions available on line. 

Lincoln Center Festival, which just completed its 21st season, presents performing arts programs from all around the globe.  The festival has presented 1,422 performances of opera, music, dance, theater, and interdisciplinary forms by internationally acclaimed artists from more than 50 countries.  LCF has commissioned 43 new works and offered 143 world, U.S., and New York premières.  (A more detailed profile of the program is in my report on Ubu Roi, posted on 27 August 2015.)  LCF uses many venues off the main Lincoln Center campus, including the Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College (where Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme and Golem played) as well as the Rose Theater.  Built in 2004 as part of the Time Warner Center on Columbus Circle, a block south of the lower end of the performing arts center’s main site, the  Frederick P. Rose Hall, of which the theater is a component, is the regular home of Jazz at Lincoln Center.  A 1,094-seat concert hall, the Rose, coincidentally, shares its name with the Elizabethan theater near the original Globe that was excavated shortly before the foundations of Shakespeare’s home theater were discovered.

Shakespeare is believed to have composed Merchant between 1596 and 1598.  (That’s the approximate era in which Jonathan Munby set the modern Globe’s revival.)  It was almost certainly Shakespeare’s response to Christopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta, probably written in 1589 or 1590, which was very popular when it was first shown and revived many times between 1592 and 1594.  The Jew of the title, Barabas, is portrayed as so detestable that his enemies boil him in a cauldron and this depiction influenced Shakespeare’s portrait of Shylock—and Shakespeare’s play was often nicknamed “The Jew of Venice,” affirming the connection.  Elements of Shakespeare’s play are also present in Giovanni Fiorentino’s 14th-century tale Il Pecorone (The Simpleton), published in Milan in 1558 (the “pound of flesh” as surety for a loan, testing the three suitors, the rescue of the debtor by his friend’s wife disguised as a lawyer, the demand for the ring as payment); The Orator (Epitomes de cent histoires tragicques, 1581) by Alexandre Sylvain, published in translation in 1596 (parts of Shylock’s trial); and “Gesta Romanorum” (“Deeds of the Romans”), a Latin collection of tales probably compiled at the end of the 13th century, translated into English between 1510 and 1515 (the testing of the suitors with the three caskets).  Oddly, The Merchant of Venice was catalogued as a comedy—which really only means it’s not a tragedy or a history. 

It’s also considered one of Shakespeare’s most troublesome “problem plays,” not just because of the naked anti-Semitism in the text (and there are also strong redolences of misogyny, classism, and xenophobia as well), but because the juxtaposition of comedy and dark drama don’t mesh easily (making it an irresistible draw for modern directors).  Time Out New York’s David Cote supplied a perceptive metaphor for Merchant’s composition:

It’s as if Louis CK and Ricky Gervais collaborated on a really dark satire about religious bigotry, full of characters corrupted by money and prejudice . . . then forgot to say that anti-Semitism is a bad thing.  Worse: That if the state forces you to convert to its religion, that’s a happy ending.

The earliest record of a performance of The Merchant of Venice was in 1605 at the court of King James I, though it was undoubtedly premièred right after it was written, as would have been the custom in Shakespeare’s time.  It’s been a popular script for the centuries since, but because of the problems inherent in the play it’s also been subjected to adaptation and bowdlerization.  (Needless to say, it was a popular play in Germany during the Third Reich.)  Many of the world’s most illustrious actors have played Shylock; one of the most astonishing perhaps being Jacob Adler (1855-1926), a star of New York’s Yiddish theater at the turn of the 20th century, who played the role first in a Yiddish theater production on New York’s Lower East Side (the Yiddish Rialto) and then on Broadway in a 1903 presentation in which he spoke Yiddish while the rest of the characters spoke English.  In the past half century alone, actors with very recognizable names have assayed the role: Lawrence Olivier, Patrick Stewart, Antony Sher, and Al Pacino, to name but a few.

Until the early 19th century, Shylock was presented as a villain, an avaricious, cold-hearted monster, or a hideous clown.  Edmund Kean (1787-1833), an influential star of the British stage, changed the perception of the character in his first  appearance in the role in 1814.  After Kean, all great actors—except the American star Edwin Booth—played Shylock with an air of dignity and sympathy.  There have been many film versions of Merchant, starting in the silent era and including the 2004 Hollywood adaptation starring Al Pacino as Shylock (with Jeremy Irons as Antonio and Joseph Fiennes—the title role in the 1998 film Shakespeare in Love—as Bassanio), and several operatic adaptations. 

There are Broadway records of dozens of productions starting a far back as 1768.  Dustin Hoffman played the moneylender in a 1989 production directed by Sir Peter Hall (which had previously been seen in London) and Pacino played the part in a 2010 Joseph Papp Public Theater/New York Shakespeare Festival mounting staged by Daniel Sullivan that had begun the previous summer as Shakespeare in the Park at the Delacorte Theater.  At an earlier Central Park production in 1962, George C. Scott portrayed Shylock.  Off-Broadway productions have stretched from 1962 to the 2007 TFANA revival starring F. Murray Abraham that I saw.  The TFANA production was restaged in New York City in 2011 at Pace University’s Michael Schimmel Center for the Arts in lower Manhattan after a successful tour to London. 

The action of Jonathan Munby’s interpretation begins at a street carnival of musicians and revelers in Commedia dell’Arte costumes and masks (the Carnival of Venice?).  (Music for the production is composed by Jules Maxwell and directed by Jeremy Avis.)  Onlookers are dancing and capering until the mood darkens considerably several minutes after the merriment starts when Shylock (Jonathan Pryce) and another Jew, Tubal (Michael Hadley), pass by and are assaulted by three Venetians for no apparent reason and left beaten in the darkened street.  (The production’s fight director is Kate Waters.)

Meanwhile, Bassanio (Dan Fredenburgh), who needs money to become the suitor to Portia (Rachel Pickup), a wealthy heiress of Belmont (a fictional region near Venice on the mainland), asks his friend Antonio (Dominic Mafham), a merchant of Venice, for a loan of 3,000 ducats, a very large sum.  Antonio’s money’s tied up in shipments on the seas, so he approaches the moneylender Shylock, whom he makes no pretense about despising.  Shylock agrees to lend Antonio the money on the condition that if the merchant doesn’t pay it back on time, Shylock may cut out a pound of Antonio’s flesh.  Antonio agrees and Bassanio prepares to leave for Portia’s palazzo in Belmont, taking his friend Gratiano (Jolyon Coy) with him.

Launcelot Gobbo (Stefan Adegbola), Shylock’s servant, decides to leave Shylock’s service.  He wrings some tortured comedy out of his rationale for his action by bringing a couple of (coerced) audience volunteers up on stage with him to enact his moral dilemma, one serving as his “fiend” and the other as his “conscience.”  Lorenzo (Andy Apollo), Salarino (Brian Martin), and Gratiano plot to help Jessica (Phoebe Pryce), Shylock’s daughter, escape her father’s house so she can forswear her Jewish faith and elope with Lorenzo.  While Shylock meets with Antonio, Jessica and Lorenzo flee with some of Shylock’s money and jewels. (In Jewish custom, a daughter who marries outside the faith becomes a non-person and her family behaves as if she never existed; a son who marries a gentile is considered to have died and is mourned with prayers for the dead.)  Shylock is more distraught over the loss of his ducats than at his daughter’s betrayal of their heritage.

Portia’s late father decreed that she must marry the man who chooses from three “caskets” (small chests), one each of gold, silver, and lead, the one containing her portrait.  But Portia’s displeased with her suitors.  Fortunately for her, the Prince of Morocco (Giles Terera) and the Prince of Arragon (Christopher Logan), having been misled by the surface splendor of the gold and silver caskets, both choose the wrong ones.  When Bassanio arrives, he chooses the right casket and Gratiano reveals that he’s fallen in love with Nerissa (Dorothea Myer-Bennett), Portia’s maid.  Portia and Nerissa, now pledged to Bassanio and Gratiano, present their betrotheds rings as tokens of their love and make them swear never to part with them.

Back in Venice, Antonio’s and Bassanio’s two friends, Solanio (Raj Bajaj) and Salarino, hear that some of Antonio’s ships have been lost and Shylock vows to redeem his bond.  Tubal also brings his friend Shylock word of Antonio’s losses and Jessica’s profligate spending in Genoa.  (The Globe production broke here for intermission and upon returning, Munby staged the second of his inserted musical interludes, a celebratory revel at Portia’s house for the two newly-wedded couples.)  Solanio arrives at Belmont with Lorenzo and Jessica, bringing news that Antonio, unable to repay his loan, has been arrested and that Shylock is demanding his bond.  Shylock refuses to listen to Antonio’s pleas.  Bassanio returns to Venice with money from Portia to repay the loan.

Disguised as a “learned judge” from Rome called “Balthasar” and his clerk, Portia and Nerissa travel to Venice to defend Antonio against Shylock, leaving Lorenzo and Jessica in charge of the house in Belmont.  At the court, the Duke of Venice (Hadley) hears Shylock present his case and though he protests, he accepts the legality of Shylock’s claim.

Shylock rejects Bassanio’s offer of Portia’s money and demands his bond.  “Balthasar” arrives and agrees that if Shylock refuses to be merciful, he must take his bond—but only if the pound of flesh alone is cut from Antonio’s breast without spilling a drop of blood.  (Antonio has been bound to a beam with his arms outstretched, in the attitude of a crucifixion.  This clearly places Shylock, the Jew, in the role of the Christ-killer.)  Realizing this can’t be done, Shylock tries to leave, but because he’s attempted to take Antonio’s life, his goods are confiscated and his life is placed in Antonio’s hands.  Antonio allows Shylock to live if he agrees to become a Christian and give his possessions to Lorenzo and Jessica as a dowry.  Shylock submits abjectly and leaves.

As “a tribute” for their service, the disguised Portia and Nerissa each ask for the rings they’d given to Bassanio and Gratiano in their true identities.  After strenuously refusing at first, the men reluctantly give up the rings.  Portia and Nerissa then return to Belmont where Jessica and Lorenzo are waiting.  When Bassanio and Gratiano arrive soon after, along with Antonio, the women trick their men into begging forgiveness for giving their rings away.  The women then reveal their deception at the court.  Antonio learns that his ships are safe.  They all celebrate their good fortune and Shylock’s defeat with music, dancing, and drink.

Following this ending is an epilogue Munby added, Shylock’s forced baptismal ceremony in Latin and solemn pomp during which Jessica kneels down right and keens a Hebrew prayer (which may have been the Kaddish, the prayer of mourning, but I couldn’t hear her clearly enough over the musical accompaniment and the Latin mass) in a belated twinge of regret.  At the end of the ceremony, Pryce descends from the stage into the auditorium, walks dejectedly to the nearest exit down near the stage at house right, and essentially slinks away

I was thinking during the intermission of Merchant that I don’t off hand know another Shakespeare play with so many “central” plots.  There are three, which all unfold separately from one another (though they intersect at a couple of points) and each has about the same weight in the text.  There’s the best-known plot, Shylock and Antonio, then there’s the Bassanio-Portia plot, and the Lorenzo-Jessica plot.  It’s almost as if Shakespeare had these three stories, but none of them was long enough for a full play, so he stitched them together.  Can anyone think of another Shakespeare play with so many main plotlines?  Lots of the plays have subplots, but they’re not equally weighted.

The Globe production of Merchant was, like Bouffes du Nord’s Bourgeois Gentilhomme,  long.  (It seems to be a contagious disease: LCT’s Oslo, on which I reported on 13 August, was three hours—with two intermissions; Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme was 3¼ hours, and The Merchant of Venice was two hours and 55 minutes.)  The most surprising thing to me was that Diana proclaimed the play “anti-Semitic.”  I told her that wasn’t a revelation and how come she never noticed before—since we saw the TFANA production together in ’07.  Diana didn’t remember, which is a problem she has.  

Still, some critics see The Merchant of Venice as a play about anti-Semitism—in other words, Shakespeare’s criticism of the view and treatment of Jews in Renaissance England.  That, however, strikes me as probably an interpretation that arose in the 19th century rather than a theme the Bard intended in the 16th.  (This contrasts with Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s Nathan the Wise, which I reported back on 26 April was that writer’s response to the maltreatment of Jews in Enlightenment Germany and Europe.  Of course, Lessing got himself in trouble for his view.)  What this reading depends on, I think, is Shakespeare’s ability to create complex characters, including Shylock, with multiple psychological and emotional dimensions that can be interpreted and reinterpreted endlessly.  Director Munby, however, seemed to have elected to portray his and Pryce’s Shylock as a deserving target of opprobrium.

Munby inserted several interludes, including two long-ish dialogue-less musical scenes, that helped attenuate the production, in my opinion.  One was the street performance at the beginning of the performance, the music for which sounded to me like klezmer.  (Later musical accompaniments, like the wedding party, didn’t sound like that, so I’m inclined to think the reference was intentional, not just to my ear.)  Klezmer, first, is an Eastern European, Ashkenazi musical form, and, second, originated in the late 19th century.  (This Merchant was set in the Renaissance. Only one reviewer, of the Chicago performances, made note of this anomaly: Hedy Weiss of the Sun-Times.)  

The Jews of Italy, especially in the 16th and 17th centuries, were Sephardic (and a note in the program said that the few remaining Jews of Elizabethan England, about whom Shakespeare might have known, were largely from Spain and Portugal, refugees from the Inquisition, also Sephardim), so their music wouldn’t be remotely klezmer—even if it weren’t two to three centuries too early.  Later in the play, Munby inserted a scene between Shylock and his daughter, Jessica—played, coincidentally, by Pryce’s daughter Phoebe—in which they argue in Yiddish.  It’s more likely that Shylock and Jessica would speak Ladino, the language of the Sephardim, based on medieval Spanish rather than German.

(I have just learned that last January, the American Sephardi Federation presented a 90-minute, Sephardi style adaptation of The Merchant of Venice at the Center for Jewish History in the Flatiron District of Manhattan.  The adaptation starred David Serero as Shylock and an additional cast of four singing Ladino songs.  The 33-year-old Sephardi, a French-Moroccan actor and opera baritone who was born in Paris and lives in New York City, also directed the adaptation, which had its world première at the Center in June 2015.) 

Pryce’s performance got a good review in the Times on 23 July, and it was deserved—he’s a two-time Tony winner for Miss Saigon (1991) and Comedians (1977)—but I still had some problems with the overall directorial concept.  As Diana noted, Merchant is a pretty anti-Jewish play—Shylock in Shakespeare isn’t the “good Jew” of Something Rotten! (see my report on 14 May and another by Kirk Woodward on 11 May)—but he gets a measure of sympathy in the “Hath not a Jew eyes” speech (and even, to an extent, in the “It is in my humour” speech at the trial), but Munby may have trimmed the first speech (if not, Pryce went through it awfully fast) because I missed its impact.  (To be sure, Rachel Pickup’s Portia also underplays her “quality of mercy” oration in the trial scene, so I gather director Munby chose to deemphasize the famous speeches.)  Shylock’s Yiddish argument with Jessica helps establish, along with Mike Britton’s costuming, his status as an outsider and foreigner in Venetian society, and it also reinforces the impression, supported by the text, that Shylock isn’t such a loving father, but distant and controlling.  This makes him even less sympathetic and helps justify Jessica’s betrayal and abandonment.

This production, as I suggested earlier, seemed to want to make Shylock a true villain.  There was even applause from the audience when Antonio declares that Shylock must convert to Christianity in exchange for his life.  Oddly, this all transpired even though, at the end of that opening street performance Munby added, Shylock and Tubal are beaten—showing that Shylock isn’t wrong to feel aggrieved by his treatment at the hands of Christians.  Indeed, there’s no dearth of anti-Semitic violence from the good Christian souls of Venice, as Shylock’s spat upon and cursed by Antonio and his friends even as the Venetian merchant turns to the despised Jew for help.  Still, the Globe production seemed to present Shylock as entirely deserving of his fate, particularly with Antonio assuming the image of the crucified Jesus at the Jew’s hands.  At the end of the performance, Munby’s added conversion ceremony and Pryce’s exit seemed a manifestation of his view of Shylock. 

Munby, aside from his interpolations (against which he also made some cuts and compressions), kept the three-hour production moving.  The added sequences didn’t so much make the show longer as interrupt or delay the play’s action and attenuate some moments.  Moreover, they didn’t seem organic, as if the production were changing gears every time they occurred.  These scenes can all be justified on thematic grounds, but I didn’t feel the trade-off was worthwhile.  The director’s work with the actor’s, however, was mostly excellent, though I had some reservations on this score as well.  Some problems may have been intentional, such as the broad hints in Antonio and Bassanio’s relationship that suggested an unconsummated homoerotic attraction, made clear when Antonio moved in for a kiss after the trial and Bassanio rebuffs him—he’s a married man now, after all.  Perhaps Munby felt the need to explain why Antonio puts himself on the line with Shylock for Bassanio and why Bassanio swears such allegiance to Antonio during and after the trial even over his new wife.  In any case, it adds a dimension to the play that is barely relevant and, therefore, distracting.  (The Guardian’s Emma Brockes remarked, “I wonder if there isn’t a way to make gay subtext slightly more subtextual.”)

Other misses were the noticeable lack of romantic chemistry between Jessica and Lorenzo, making the point, I assume, that Lorenzo and Christianity are just means of escape for Jessica from her father’s controlling grasp.  There’s also less passion in Portia for her Bassanio once he’s chosen the correct casket; it’s as if, first, her wish for him to win the contest was more to avoid the buffoons who were Bassanio’s rivals than to have him for himself and, then, to be his “master” the way Portia’s father had been hers.  The decision for Gobbo to enlist two spectators to make some comedy—in Washington, actor Stefan Adegbola selected a local reviewer as one of the two—may well have been a desperate choice to enliven a fraught bit that’s often a problem in this “problem” play.  (One of Munby’s deletions is the character of Launcelot’s father, who’s even less funny than the son.)

As for the production’s look, Munby and his design team devised a sumptuous period look, with touches that evoked the wealth of 16th-century Venice and the exoticism of the inhabitants of its Jewish ghetto.  Designer Mike Britton’s dark, wooden sets (supplemented by atmospheric—that is, shadowy—lighting by Oliver Fenwick in an auditorium where the house lights remained aglow) frame the action simply (reminiscent of an Elizabethan theater on which the modern Globe is modeled), while the ornate gold-capitaled columns remind us how prosperous and prominent the city was at the time.  Britton’s rich costumes are reminiscent of Renaissance art, based on traditional garb, with several historical elements such as Shylock’s and Tubal’s red hats (kippot) and the small, yellow circle on the upper left breast of their tunics, symbols Jews were required to wear in Renaissance Venice when they left the ghetto, underscoring their status as “the other.”  Venice’s position as a world crossroads is reflected, too, in the music (in Maxwell’s score and Avis’s direction) played by a band of minstrels (clarinet, cello, percussion, and voice) roaming the stage at various points in the production, which added to the theatrical richness of the production even though I felt it was dramatically unnecessary.  (Other sound design was by Christopher Shutt and the dances were choreographed by Lucy Hind.) 

The acting, as you might expect from a company like Shakespeare’s Globe, was top-notch.  Standouts were Pryce’s Shylock, Phoebe Pryce’s Jessica, and Rachel Pickup’s Portia, with nice turns by Dorothea Myer-Bennett, Dan Fredenburgh, Dominic Mafham, and Andy Apollo.  I didn’t always agree with their interpretations, but they were always executed with thorough commitment and care.

Pryce’s moneylender is consumed by anger and bitterness; he makes little of the sympathy-generating “Hath not a Jew eyes” speech, but spits out his deprecations of Bassanio (“I will not eat with you, drink with you, nor pray with you”), Antonio (“I hate him for he is a Christian!”), and Christian Venice in general (“I have a daughter; / Would any of the stock of Barabbas / Had been her husband rather than a Christian!”) with as much bile as they, in turn, expectorate actual spittle in his face.  Any hint of a softer nature is snuffed out by the will for vengeance.  In other hands, though, this would have made Shylock a caricature of the Christian-hating Jew, but Pryce’s skill and even, dare I say, gentle soul, makes his Shylock the product of years of mistreatment and abuse and centuries of prejudice and bigotry heaped upon his ancestors.  It won’t make the moneylender loved, but it makes him understandable.  As Shlyock’s daughter, Jessica, Pryce’s real-life daughter Phoebe is sublime: quietly determined, independent, and rebellious, this Jessica may not really love Lorenzo, but she’s firm about her decision to get out from under her stern father’s hyper-protective restraints.  Phoebe Pryce’s look of anguish in Munby’s coda conveys Jessica’s ambivalence over her abandonment of her father and over his fate.

Rachel Pickup handles a multidimensional Portia smoothly, though this snobbish, entitled woman is less than entirely admirable.  Passionate and witty as the society lady, she’s also racist (her distaste for the Spanish and Moroccan suitors is palpable and she shows disdain for Jessica, the former Jewess) and classist, not to mention dismissive of her husband as something resembling a plaything.  However intelligent and resourceful Pickup’s Portia proves to be, her overkill of Shylock, which the New York Times’ Christopher Isherwood described as “almost sadistic,” and manipulation of Bassanio over the ring are cold and unlikeable acts.  Yet the actress commits marvelously to it all and never falters in her credibility.  As her maid Nerissa, Dorothea Myer-Bennett displays a devilish sense of humor, even as she echoes her mistress.  Myer-Bennett has a light touch, even when she doesn’t speak, that leavens the role with a sense of fun.

Dan Fredenburgh and Andy Apollo as the husbands Bassanio and Lorenzo are both more ardent than their brides—and put others at considerable risk in pursuit of their desires.  Fredenburgh and Apollo are stalwart and loyal—sometimes to their own detriment—and seem not to recognize that their beloveds don’t share their passion.  (It makes me wonder what wedded bliss will be like a few years down the line.  I once did a reading of a play that put Romeo and Juliet, who didn’t die at the end of Shakespeare’s play, in a middle-aged marriage watching their daughter fall into the pattern of young love that had so dramatically affected their lives as teenagers.  It was a hoot, but the marriage was a sad affair.)  If Merchant were a sitcom, Fredenburgh’s Bassanio and Apollo’s Lorenzo would be the straight men.

Dominic Mafham’s Antonio was a tough row to hoe, I’d imagine.  Part steadfast hero and friend who puts himself in jeopardy for Bassanio and is prepared to pay his penalty even at the cost of his life, he’s also a rabid anti-Semite who doesn’t hesitate to spit in Shylock’s face even as he begs for a loan.  Both Bassanio and Gratiano are more open and fun-loving than Mafham’s Antonio, who comes off as a little gray and stodgy when he’s not vituperating at the Jew.  I found his hints of sexual attraction for his friend Bassanio dramatically un-called-for, as I said, but Mafham plays them sincerely.

Once again, Show-Score tallied reviews from performances outside New York City, so I recalculated its ratings to include only local notices.  Of the seven New York reviews, Show-Score reported 71% positive notices, 29% negative, and no mixed reviews.  The average rating of the New York press was 79.  (My review round-up included 11 notices.) 

Calling the Globe’s Merchant of Venice a “stylistically jarring production” in her “Bottom Line,” Linda Winer of Long Island’s Newsday described Pryce’s portrayal of Shylock as “complex” and “blazingly internalized,” and Munby’s production “handsome” and “modest” but “a mixed treasure.”  Winer complained that it’s “obnoxious in its audience-participation clowning, routine in too many major parts,” but “harrowing in its violent juxtaposition of the merry Venetian gentiles and their unspeakably casual cruelty to the Jews.”  Munby “underlines the anti-Semitic horror” of the play but “ignores . . . the play’s gender oppression” in a staging that “is not a speechifying production.”  In am New York, Matt Windman, affirming that Pryce “gave a deeply felt performance as Shylock,” reported that “Jonathan Munby does evoke Renaissance Italy with rich costumes and period music” in “a striking production that emphasized the brutal violence, mockery and intolerance facing the moneylender Shylock.” 

In the U.S. edition of the Guardian, Emma Brockes declared the Globe’s Merchant “the very best of what a traditional production can be, throwing light on the text but with enough new touches to preserve against boredom.”  She continued, “It is also . . . a barometer for the anxieties of the times.  Through subtle direction and inflection, the shading around Shylock, Antonio and even Portia is recalibrated to provoke or withhold sympathy in line with modern definitions of victimhood.”  Decrying the faux-Elizabethan practice of players “leaping across the stage and running up and down the aisles inciting the audience to clap their hands,” Brockes suggested it might work better in the reconstructed period theater of the Globe, but at Lincoln Center, she complained that “it brought on a slightly frozen self-consciousness” to the audience (though the reviewer liked Launcelot Gobbo’s audience-participation bit better).  Munby’s “staging, with minimal scenery and dim lighting, rendered the darkness of the times,” and Pryce’s Shylock, “stoop-shouldered and by turns cowering and full of a frothing bravado, rescued the role from being a ‘comment’ on race.”

In the Times, Isherwood labeled LCF’s Merchant a “brooding, powerful production” in which “[l]ight barely seems to penetrate the atmosphere,” as if the darkness were meant “to hide the iniquity so vividly on display.”  Director Munby’s “lucid and strongly acted staging” made us “aware that while this Shakespearean play is classified as a comedy and is poised ambivalently between light and dark, it will generally be the baser aspects of humanity that prevail.”  Pryce’s “eloquent, beautifully rendered Shylock” is “deeply moving,” the Timesman felt, as he “illuminates Shylock’s anguish so vividly, his face a contorted mask of spiritual suffering, that it all but erases any sense of contrasting light and dark in the play.  We have reached the heart of the matter, and it is a place where mercy, love and what we commonly think of as simple humanity hold little sway.”  

David Cote, after delivering a lengthy peroration on Merchant and its implications for audiences modern and Renaissance, characterized the Globe production in Time Out New York as “a stodgy, underwhelming affair” the staging of which “is unfussy and direct, but rarely exciting.”  Pryce’s “Shylock [is] a generally passive, cerebral performance,” the man from TONY complained, “all in the voice and very little in the body,” adding, however: “Still, what a grand voice.”  Cote also warned, “The visuals aren’t helped by a drab design, murky onstage lights and the decision to keep house lights on low.”  He concluded, “Otherwise, it’s a standard, competent Merchant that evokes mixed feelings of happiness and horror, silliness and tragedy.”  Variety’s Marilyn Stasio wrote, “Jonathan Pryce makes a strong case for Shylock’s infamous demand for a pound of flesh in Shakespeare’s Globe‘s gorgeously stylized production of ‘The Merchant of Venice,’” then went on to point out that “to pull off this tricky adjustment . . ., director Jonathan Munby had to flip the customary dynamic and turn Shylock’s Christian adversaries into heartless fiends.”  Stasio added, though: “The stagecraft is so stunning, and the acting so dazzling, you might think the play had actually been written this way.”  Pryce’s Shylock, declared the Variety reviewer, was “a towering performance,” as the actor “delivers Shakespeare’s immortal lines on the common humanity of all mankind . . . with deeply, honestly felt emotion.”  Director Munby “assists in bringing out such unorthodox character nuances with copious bits of stage business.”

In the earliest of two Huffington Post reviews, “First Nighter” David Finkle asserted that Munby “has been ingenious while looking the how-to-handle-Shylock-and-his-oppressors puzzler directly in the face.”  In addition to the textual references to Shylock’s abuse, Finkle noted, the director “makes certain that ticket buyers witness the persistent effrontery” so that the production “keeps the disdain for Jews prominent.”  For the transfer to a conventional proscenium house, he’s also made efforts to compensate for “much of the Globe amenities” that are missing from theaters like Lincoln Center’s Rose, namely the daylight from the open roof and the open pit for the groundlings.  All Munby’s work succeeds as well as it does, said the “First Nighter,” because “[h]e has a first-rate cast performing for him.”  Jil Picariello, the second HP reviewer, pronounced Pryce’s “portrait of Shylock in the dark and powerful production of The Merchant of Venice . . . is brilliant and tragic.”  She continued effusively, “He is a man of our time, a man of all time.  His famous speech about the similarity of his sufferings to ours has never been more compelling or more moving.”  Picariello also reported that “all the performances, under the direction of Jonathan Munby, are excellent, with particularly stellar turns from the three women” and that the “simple set by Mike Britton and the shadowy lighting by Oliver Fenwick are brooding and gorgeous, a stylized representation of the darkness that shrouds this world.”  While noting the “hilarity” provided by Gobbo and Portia’s suitors, this review-writer asserted that “it is the darkness that rules in this production.”  Picariello acknowledged that the “challenges in the text to a modern audience are dealt with well,” but remained puzzled “over the addition” of some of Munby’s insertions, particularly Antonio’s attempt to kiss Bassanio—but she found Shylock’s baptism “heartbreaking.”  Picariello concluded, “It’s a punch to the gut, a brilliant production, and a performance that will stay with you long after the torches go out.” 

On TheaterMania, David Gordon declared, “When Jonathan Pryce takes the stage in the Shakespeare's Globe production of The Merchant of Venice, time stops.”  It’s a “multifaceted performance . . . so nuanced that he dominates” the production.  “When he’s not onstage, though, the nearly three-hour evening has a tendency to sag,” lamented the TM reviewer.  “During Pryce's offstage scenes," Gordon observed, especially in the “romantic moments between the lovers,” which “never quite gel,” the production “is disappointingly black-and-white.”  Jerry Beal of Theater Pizzazz asserted that, despite its difficult nature, director Munby “is bold, imaginative, and thoroughly in charge of his vision” for the production.  He reported that “while the cast is . . . uniformly outstanding,. . . Jonathan Pryce is luminous” as Shylock. Elyse Sommer dubbed the Globe’s Merchant “striking” and Pryce’s Shylock “Memorably moving” on CurtainUp.  She described the production as a “fascinating tackling of this dramatic schizophrenia.”

 [In addition to Diana’s appraisal that Merchant is an anti-Semitic play, she also wondered whether any court would actually accept Shylock’s claim as valid.  I have no idea what the law of Venice would say in the 1590s, but I’m pretty sure that today in the United States such a contract would be deemed unenforceable.  I’m no legal authority, however, so why not turn to someone who is to ponder this question?  As it happens, such an expert has weighed this case—no less a judicial personage than Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg of the U.S. Supreme Court.  And where should she hear this case, an appeal on Shylock’s behalf?  Why, in Venice, of course!

[There’s a long tradition of legal heavyweights presiding over mock trials from Shakespeare’s plays—trials of Macbeth and Richard III for murder, hearings to determine if Hamlet is competent to be tried for the death of Polonius, divorce cases for Katherina and Petruchio , and so on.  The following article, Rachel Donadio’s “Ginsburg Weighs Fate of Shylock” (New York Times, 28 July 2016), published shortly after  I saw the play, reports on one such mock tribunal.  I thought it was pertinent enough to append to my report on the Globe’s staging of The Merchant of Venice:

[VENICE — What do Supreme Court justices do on their summer vacations? For Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg — longtime liberal standard-bearer, recent Donald J. Trump critic — this year’s answer is: Go to Venice, watch your grandson perform in a production of “The Merchant of Venice” and preside over a mock appeal of the city’s most notorious resident, Shylock.

[And so, on Wednesday afternoon, in the monumental 16th-century Scuola Grande di San Rocco, beneath ceiling paintings by Tintoretto, Justice Ginsburg and four other judges, including the United States ambassador to Italy, John R. Phillips, heard arguments on behalf of Shylock and two other characters, before reaching a unanimous ruling.

[“I’d describe it as fun,” Justice Ginsburg said of the coming mock appeal in an interview on Tuesday, in which she talked about Venice, which she first visited on her honeymoon in 1954, and Shakespeare, whose work she loves — but not about Mr. Trump, weeks after she said she regretted her remarks criticizing the man who is now the Republican presidential nominee.

[The mock appeal began where the play ended: Shylock, the conniving Venetian Jewish moneylender, insists on collecting a pound of flesh from Antonio, who has defaulted on a loan. But a judge, actually Portia disguised as a man, finds Shylock guilty of conspiring against Antonio and rules that he must hand over half his property to Antonio and the other half to the state.

[Antonio says he will forgo his half, on the condition that Shylock convert to Christianity and will his estate to Jessica, Shylock’s wicked and rebellious daughter, who has run off to Genoa with Lorenzo, a Christian. Shylock, humiliated, agrees.

[After about two hours of arguments and about 20 minutes of deliberations, the judges issued a unanimous ruling: To remove the question of the pound of flesh — “We agreed it was a merry sport, and no court would enforce it,” Justice Ginsburg said — to restore Shylock’s property, to restore the 3,000 ducats that he had lent to Antonio, and to nullify the demand of his conversion.

[“The conversion was sought by Antonio,” Justice Ginsburg said. “The defendant in the case was decreeing the sanction. I never heard of a defendant in any system turning into a judge as Antonio did.” She added, to laughter, “And finally, after four centuries of delay in seeking payment, we think that Shylock is out of time in asking for interest.”

[The court was not unanimous in what to do with Portia. The judges ruled that because Portia was “an impostor,” a “hypocrite” and “a trickster,” she would be sanctioned by having to attend law school at the University of Padua, where one of the judges, Laura Picchio Forlati, taught. Then she would have to pursue a master of laws degree at Wake Forest University, where another of the judges, Richard Schneider, is a professor and dean.

[Mr. Schneider said it wasn’t daunting to share the bench with Justice Ginsburg. “Because she was wonderful and welcoming,” he said.

[The audience was gripped, even in sweltering heat. “It’s an intellectual version of reality television,” said Dominic Green, a Shakespeare scholar and professor at Boston College, who attended.

[It was an all-star Shakespeare event. Before deliberations began, F. Murray Abraham recited the “hath not a Jew eyes?” speech. While the judges deliberated, the Shakespeare scholars Stephen Greenblatt and James Shapiro discussed the play.

[The mock appeal was linked to a production of “The Merchant of Venice” being staged in the main square of Venice’s Jewish ghetto, performed by the New York-based Compagnia de’ Colombari, part of a series of events this year marking the ghetto’s 500th anniversary.

[Justice Ginsburg said she’d become involved in the mock appeal after learning about the “Merchant of Venice” production from friends who spend time each year in Venice, including Judith Martin, who writes as Miss Manners, and the mystery novelist Donna Leon. (Asked who had paid for her visit, the justice said she had come to Venice after speaking at a conference hosted by New York University in Barcelona.)

[Over the years, Justice Ginsburg has presided over several other mock Shakespeare appeals. “In the one I like most, the question was whether Hamlet was competent to stand trial for the murder of Polonius,” Justice Ginsburg said. “My judgment was, yes he was. But not only Polonius, but the grand jury should consider whether he should be indicted for Ophelia’s death.”

[After Justice Ginsburg expressed interest in a mock appeal, the play’s director, Karin Coonrad, did a Skype audition with the justice’s grandson, Paul Spera, an actor who lives in Paris. She cast him as Lorenzo, who runs away with Jessica, Shylock’s daughter.

[“He’s very, very good,” Justice Ginsburg said of her grandson’s performance. “I admit to being a little prejudiced on the subject, but I thought he was wonderful.”

[Mr. Spera, 30, said his grandmother had noticed that they had cut two lines from a famous scene with the refrain “In such a night as this.” “My bubbe was a little disappointed by that,” Mr. Spera said after opening night. Yes, he said, he calls her “bubbe,” the Yiddish term for grandmother.

[There had been some controversy among Jews in Venice about performing such a problematic play. “When I was going to school, ‘The Merchant of Venice’ was banned because it was known as an anti-Semitic play,” Justice Ginsburg said. She said she agreed with the assessment. “That’s what Shakespeare meant it to be,” she said. “Shylock is a villain. He’s insisting on a pound of flesh. He’s sharpening his knife.”

[Shaul Bassi, a professor of Shakespeare at the University of Venice and a key organizer of the mock trial and the play, sees it differently. “It’s not an anti-Semitic play, it’s a play about anti-Semitism,” he said. Mr. Bassi, a co-founder of the nonprofit organization Beit Venezia, said he hoped the production would show the ghetto as a meeting place of cultures. “This is an incredible opportunity to rethink this place,” he said.

[The Jewish community of Venice, which numbers 450 people, is raising funds to restore the five synagogue buildings on the ghetto’s main square, which are crumbling after lack of maintenance, and to reimagine the Jewish Museum. “It’s not a mausoleum, it’s not a look at the past,” said David Landau, who leads the community’s restoration committee.

[Back at the mock trial, after the judges wrapped up, the last word didn’t go to Justice Ginsburg but to Arrigo Cipriani, the owner of Harry’s Bar, which sponsored a cocktail reception after the ruling. Justice Ginsburg entered to applause, and was promptly handed a Bellini.]