Venetian Bind – Actor tackles notorious ‘problem play’

Millennium Place is making its second foray into hosting live theatre next weekend with a production of Mark Leiran-Young’s provocative one-act monologue Shylock. Here’s the shtick in a nutshell: Jewish actor John Davie (played by David Berner) has stirred up a hornet’s nest of controversy due to his villainous and, he argues, accurate portrayal of Shylock, William Shakespeare’s infamous Jew from The Merchant of Venice.

After a production of the play is cancelled due to community outrage, Davies appears at a kind of mock talk-back session with audience members in order to make a case for Shakespeare and art in general while at the same time defending himself against those who would label the Bard a “neo-Nazi propagandist” and Davies a “self-hating Jew.” For 90 minutes, the actor will challenge audience members to consider if the role of art is to simply make people comfortable or if there is a higher responsibility to abstract notions of “truth.”

David Berner as Shylock. ( photo)

Berner, only the second actor to take on the role, has been performing the play since 1996, when it was put on as a companion piece to a Bard On The Beach production of Merchant. For those unfamiliar with the notorious “problem play,” it is a romantic comedy about an Italian shipping magnate duped by a vengeful Jewish moneylender (Shylock) into putting up “a pound of flesh” as collateral on a loan. The role of Shylock is considered a tremendous challenge for actors because they have to balance playing a character meant to serve as both a comic villain and grief-stricken father. It’s a tough role for Jews and Gentiles alike but also a very juicy one. As Berner pointed out over the phone from his Vancouver home, Shylock “only has three major scenes yet he remains one of the great characters in all of English literature.

Berner, who only first played Shylock (as opposed to playing Davies playing Shylock) in an actual performance of Merchant last April, described the experience of tackling the role as “initially horrifying.”

“I’m both a Jew and an actor,” he explained. “Unless you’re without feelings, you feel completely alien; you feel you’re in a world that doesn’t accept you. Everybody keeps calling you ‘the Jew’ in the most horrible way and when the trial scene comes up at the end, there is this absolutely imminent sense of danger.”

Things don’t turn out terribly well for Shylock in the end, and this is the problem with putting on the play today. There’s little debate anymore about whether or not Merchant is anti-Semitic. It is a racist play from a racist time and it isn’t mere coincidence that the Nazis mounted 55 different productions of it during their reign. However, it is also worth keeping in mind that when Shakespeare wrote it there were no Jews living in England and, as the playwright never set foot outside the country, he never would’ve had the opportunity to meet one. The only moneylenders were British. Mercantilism was just getting started and it was then a crime to lend money at a rate higher than ten percent. (Interestingly enough, Shakespeare’s father, who was mayor of Stratford-Upon-Avon, was twice convicted of violating this law.) As Berner pointed out, “Shakespeare was just this impossible genius but the guy wrote when he wrote. He was way beyond his time but he was still of his time.” But does the hurt feelings the play risks make it worth dismissing altogether?

Ironically, The Merchant of Venice has been in the headlines lately due to the bruised sensibilities of an entirely different ethnic minority after a production at Ontario’s annual Stratford Festival was recently changed after some Muslims complained about the comic portrayal of the Prince of Morocco. When asked his opinion of this, Berner said, “they shouldn’t have given in. They should have just done the play the way they wanted to and if they screwed it up or if they insulted someone then too bad. It’s just a play.” One can’t help but wonder what might have happened if, following Stratford’s capitulation to public pressure, some sort of Jewish special interest group piped up they too had issues with Shylock’s portrayal. Or what if certain Scandinavians had issues with the way the Melancholy Dane was played or some dumbasses with Bottom from A Midsummer Night’s Eve? Where do you draw the line?

Berner getting into character. ( photo)

This is the question that lies at the heart of Shylock. Theatre isn’t intended to simply make people feel comfortable, it is meant to challenge preconceptions, to make people think for themselves. According to Berner, Leiren-Young “has struggled mightily to have Shylock put on at Stratford, who in turn have resisted it completely. The late Al Waxman was very enamored of the play but even he was unable to get it put on. There are good reasons for an actor not to do it but there are none for a theatre company not to do it.”

Others maintain the play has only survived to this day because of its author. Not because he’s the greatest writer in the English language but because he’s the best known, most studied and easily referred to. Anti-Semitism was not uncommon in Elizabethan times and, according to Berner, “there were something like ten different plays circulating London at the time all dealing with this subject matter. The only two that survived are Christopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta and The Merchant of Venice, which is the only one still being performed today. The mere fact that it’s Shakespeare means that people will keep doing it but, at the same time and in spite of some flaws, Merchant is still an incredible piece of work. Nonetheless, the first time I saw it I squirmed while watching it but never once said to myself, ‘This is outrageous. This should never be done.’ It’s powerful and fascinating and should be put on. It’s just not very nice.”

Hats off to MY Place for taking on such a risky play for their stage’s sophomore performance. After all, Shakespearean theatre, let alone controversial Shakespearean theatre, is hardly the first thing that springs to mind when people think of Whistler. Berner assured me that, while familiarity with Merchant will certainly help with an appreciation of Shylock, it isn’t crucial and that “much of it is simply a lot of fun. I must admit I get standing ovations all the time.”

(This story was first published on April 10, 2001. © Copyright (c) Whistler This Week.)


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