Gareth D. Davies was at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama for a bravado performance by Rhodri Miles in Gareth Armstrong’s dissection of Shylock, one of Shakespeare’s most problematic characters.
Gareth Armstrong’s play provides us with a deeply forensic, humorous, yet poignant exploration of how Shakespeare’s character Shylock (the Jewish money lender from the Merchant of Venice), has been portrayed through the ages; albeit through the eyes of Tubal – his perpetual understudy and, after Shylock, the only other Jewish character in the history of Shakespearean theatre. Originally performed by Armstrong himself and latterly by Guy Masterton, the play is brought to life here through critically acclaimed Welsh actor Rhodri Miles, who was inspired to perform the play after seeing Armstrong’s performance in Vienna on DVD over 15 years ago.
Miles enters the stage as Tubal, who’s only eight lines in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice are contrived to contribute to a sum of money for Shylock to loan three thousand Ducats to Antonio for the infamous ‘A pound of flesh’ bond. Much of the humour inherent in Armstrong’s writing bemoans Tubal’s dissatisfaction of a measly 8 lines of dialogue. He also exudes the underlying frustration of Tubal as the narrative motions to several underlying themes: whether Shylock should be perceived as a victim or a villain? An exploration into how Jewish characters have been portrayed through the ages in theatre; it also ponders events leading into the rise of anti-Semitism and the persecution of the Jewish people since Christ’s crucifixion. It is a masterful and thought-provoking play that is both stimulating and informative, bringing a punch to the solar plexus of the collective conscience. It is beautifully written and seeks to find spirit-lifting humour from the darkest of scenarios.
Pontardulais born Miles, who has received accolades for previous roles such as his portrayals of Richard Burton in Burton and Dylan Thomas in Clown in the Moon, is simply captivating, delivering a passionate and comedic account through the diverse range of characters he transforms into during his performance. He exudes impeccable physical and sonic delivery of the characters he portrays, as he delves into the dichotomy surrounding Armstrong’s probing inquisition: was Shylock the kind money lender or was he an evil, vengeful spite-ridden character intent on revenge and his ‘pound of flesh’? Miles progresses to skilfully dissect the portrayal of Shylock and Jews in general through theatre over the ages – from comedy (or devilishly evil) clowns, to dastardly money lenders and villains. We are educated through an exploration of the sources of ‘bloodlust’ and Jewish vampires, as well as why The Merchant of Venice was one of Hitler’s favourite plays.
Miles brings much dark humour through his characterisations and incites many laugh-out-loud moments from the audience, displaying wonderful comic timing as he does so. The play is far from a monologue; with Miles clearly enamoured when literally bouncing between characters for dialogue between Tubal and Shylock, or depicting the wonderful court scene where Shylock’s fate is revealed. This stunning flitting between characters continues when pondering Jewish history, or actors who have portrayed Shakespearian characters ranging from Barabbas, Pontius Pilot and Hitler to Christopher Marlow and Henry Irving. The underlying conclusion surmises that theatre is a manifestation of how the Jewish people have been persecuted through the ages.
The term ‘anti-Semitism’ is not uttered during the play – yet clearly slaps you in the face, reverberates, and is ingrained in the narrative throughout. Armstrong’s Shylock is profound, disturbing and at times darkly hilarious; and this serves to provide an insightful and deep education of the portrayal and betrayal of the Jewish people. It also takes a humorous swipe at Shakespeare for his part in abetting this depiction.
Rhodri Miles takes the curtain call and the audience break into loud applause and cheers. Miles subtly joins in eventually leading them in a rhythmic clapping akin to the beat to ‘Hava Nagila’ as he milks (and spices) up the moment by sliding back into character, stomping around the stage in rhythm with the clapping as the cheers continue. He has had the audience in the palm of his hands and under the hook of his ridiculously sized prosthetic nose (used to emphasise dramatic irony in an earlier scene), in what is a masterful performance.
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Gareth D. Davies is a contributor to Wales Arts Review.