Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Merchant of Venice - Casting Shylock

Avid readers,

Mike has also asked who we might want to cast as Shylock if we were in charge. I'm thinking film. A perverse part of me wonders what would happen if we were to put the role in the hands of someone with a deft sense of the comic, say Alan Arkin or Judd Hirsch. My question is: is there humor to be found in Shylock's character? Clearly modern directors have found the tragic in him, but is there also a comic? I think perhaps so. In the first act he refers to the bond as a "merry sport." Depending on how you decide to handle his earlier aside that he hates Antonio "for he is a Christian," we might see his forgoing of the usual interest in favor of a pound of flesh as a dark prank, a bit of black humor to get back at Antonio for his disrespectful actions. I think Laurence Olivier does it this way in his 1970s made-for-TV film.

In addition there's his little pun during his contemplation of Antonio's current venture: "But ships are but boards, sailors but men; there be land rats and water rats, water thieves and land thieves – I mean pirates – and then there is the peril of waters, winds, and rocks." Each Shylock I've looked at this month – Olivier, Pacino, Goodman, Dorfman – has pronounced that word "pie-rats." Ha ha ha … ha … ehhh. Lame puns aside, I think we find Shylock in a merry mood in Act I. I wonder if a talented comic actor could build that into a dimension of his character, even though there is precious little to follow that one could milk for laughs.

Would audiences today find a Shylock who makes us laugh inappropriate? Perhaps, but I would be as compelled by a charming Shylock as I am by the tragic one.

For a tour-de-force Shylock, I'd love to see Daniel Day-Lewis take it on. He's got the pedigree – his mother's family is Jewish, his father was a poet. He's British, former RSC and National Theatre, and can handle the Shakespeare. He himself has become an Irish citizen and has already made movies about the troubles (In the Name of the Father), so he knows bigotry and tense communities. Finally, here's a guy who is obsessive about his preparations for roles. On a number of his films, he has refused to break character during filming.

I will never forget Day-Lewis's pair of roles in 1985, a young streetwise gay Londoner in Stephen Frears' My Beautiful Laundrette and the intensely stiff mama's boy Cecil in the Merchant-Ivory A Room With a View. It blew me away when I realized I was watching the same actor. (I have had the same reaction to Chris Cooper more recently.) Much of Day-Lewis's minimal film output, in fact, has made use of his chameleon-like talents, and he does seem to like films based on literary sources (Age of Innocence, Last of the Mohicans).

Finally, for a theatrical production, Mark Rylance. I saw the former artistic director of Shakespeare's Globe as Olivia in Twelfth Night and as Duke Vincentio in Measure for Measure. To each role he brought a quality I would never have imagined possible. Olivia became hilariously comic. I remember one scene where she abruptly heaves her Bible across the stage to retain Cesario's attention, then tries to regain her composure and make it seem like she just dropped the book. This Olivia set the tone for the entire show, and drove any thought of the usual melancholy from the stage. To this day, it is my favorite production of any Shakespeare play.

Similarly, Rylance mitigated much of Measure for Measure's darkness and moral heaviness by giving us a somewhat bumbling Vincentio. In the New York Times Christopher Isherwood wrote of the role: "in Mr. Rylance's interpretation, the duke remains an amusingly clueless and uncertain manipulator, stammering his way through the maze of his own machinations like a master of ceremonies who hasn't been given the right script. Soft-spoken and self-doubting, he's a figure of fun, but of pathos, too - a ruler made to learn the difficulty of doing good." I remember it being really fun to watch him.

In both cases, Twelfth Night and Measure for Measure, Rylance didn't just find a new angle for a character. He shook off all conventional expectations of both character and play. It made me want to see more, and it seems to me that a Rylance Shylock would be just the right sort of role.


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