Anti-Semitism is rife in Shakespeare’s The Merchant Of Venice and, at times, it makes unpalatable watching.
But Jonathan Munby, whose production for The Globe opened to acclaim on Thursday night, appears to have made a conscious decision to go back to its roots and emphasise the play’s comedy to mitigate some wholly distasteful scenes of religious bigotry.
Jonathan Pryce makes his Globe debut with an unflashy performance as the Jewish money-lender Shylock who demands his pound of flesh from failed merchant Antonio (Dominic Mafham).
But far more emphasis is given throughout to comic trials of rich heiress Portia and her lady-in-waiting, Nerissa, in finding husbands.
This Merchant is the theatre’s first production in its Justice & Mercy season and both qualities are in short supply.
A grieving and vengeful Shylock calls for justice after Antonio fails to pay back a debt, compounding the fear rising in the resigned trader, by slowing sharpening his knife and laying out scales ready to weigh his grisly bounty.
Of course, we all know that he is undone, and, in a visually impressive tableau, the Jew’s fall from grace is played out to full dramatic effect for the Bankside audience.
Relationships are an important part of this story. Antonio gets into financial trouble after underwriting a debt for a young buck called Bassanio who needs cash to woo Portia.
His undoubted sexual attraction to Bassanio is subtly expressed with the occasional hand on a shoulder, held in place a little too long. But the headstrong romeo only has eyes for Rachel Pickup’s gorgeous Portia whose fate is sealed in three boxes of gold, silver and lead.
Her suitors are a hilarious bunch. Christopher Logan’s affected and vain Spanish prince is a hoot while the passionate Prince of Morocco (Scott Karim) is a whirling dervish with a scimitar, nearly taking out half the lady’s court and the front row of groundlings.
More laughs are provided at regular intervals by Shylock’s servant Gobbo (Stefan Adegbola) who hauls a pair from the audience to play out a scene.
Phoebe Pryce, has her first major role playing opposite her father as Shylock’s daughter Jessica and the pair work well together.
But the Jewish money-lender has a little too much English reserve for me but perhaps he’s taking the moral high ground.
His “If you prick us, do we not bleed?” speech lacked any distinction.
He’s spat on and physically assaulted by Antonio, loses his daughter from his household and faith, and his wealth is confiscated, yet, ultimately, it is left to Jessica to wail and mourn the downfall of her father.
Mike Britton’s stark stage design is an exercise in minimalism. But it beautifully offsets the costumes which are a glorious palette of burnished coppers, golds and burgundies. The ladies dresses are particularly stunning.
Daniel Lapaine makes a striking romantic hero as Bassanio but he’ll have his work cut out to tame Pickup’s independent and idealistic Portia.
And there are some good support performances from David Sturzaker as his best pal Gratiano and Dorothea Myer-Bennett as Nerissa.
The crowd-pleasing Merchant Of Venice runs until June 7.