Against a background of hanging cloths covered with words that mean ‘jew’ or ‘jewish’ in different languages, Fringe veteran Guy Masterson in Gareth Armstrong’s Shylock weaves a tapestry of rich threads from historical incidents of Jewish persecution, the playing of Shylock during the four centuries since his creation and excerpts from Shakespeare’s text itself whilst also telling the story of The Merchant of Venice. These fine images are lit by charming humour and a technical design which layers scenes through light and sound and plays its own part in the entertainment.

Masterson is a charismatic storyteller with an attractive energy, dry wit and accomplished acting ability. The information neatly woven into the show is clearly delivered, with a twinkle in the eye here and a moment of stricken thought there, via witty anecdotes within a strong structure. Our very personable guide is Tubal, friend to Shylock, who makes much of the few lines given to him by Shakespeare (eight all told – you will remember that). This allows Masterson to examine the full play and the part of Shylock as well as delivering Shylock’s famous lines without being tied to playing that somewhat difficult personality throughout.

The ease of delivery, while it has times where the performer seems to find the words just in that moment of speaking, might actually gain extra texture from a little less smoothness and more ‘moment of inspiration’ playing. Part of Masterson’s charm, though, is in this easy flow of words and the style remains when he adlibs, so it is clearly an aspect of the man himself. Another aspect that would be fascinating to see developed occurs when he dons the traditional Jew mask and ginger wig for that most famous of Shylock’s speeches, “Hath not a Jew eyes?”. There is an extra dynamism to the physicality here that would be interesting to see subtly changed rather than totally removed, though the way in which Masterson plays this speech is nonetheless effective.

The Merchant of Venice was likely fairly straightforward in its original playing as a comedy but it has developed a racial complexity since then due to the character of Shylock. He is clearly the villain of the piece – originally part of a tradition of comic caricatures – yet Shakespeare gives him an incredible speech that cuts to the heart of human respect, empathy and understanding, striking at the way in which people can view others as less-than-human simply for being different. The protagonists of the play can no longer be viewed only as heroic lovers and friends, but now are stained by their treatment of someone different from them, despite the fact that – in the end – Shylock is one who seeks another’s death and is not in himself a particularly pleasant person.

Armstrong’s script, looking at this development of Shylock within the context of the treatment of Jews in Europe, contains great detail of interesting facts, warm humour and solid Shakespeare in Masterson’s delivery and Shylock the production is both humorous and informative entertainment. It also coincides with Masterson’s 50th birthday (and Tubal‘s 400th anniversary!), so grab the opportunity to enjoy this celebration.

By Danielle Farrow

4-29 August (not 8, not 15), 15:45 (17:00) @ Assembly Hall

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