The Merchant of Venice: a conversation with the director Jonathan Munby

The day after attending Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice” at Teatro Goldoni, we students from Linea 20 were given the chance to have a chat with the director and some actors from the play. Here is our interview.

Elena: So, what was your approach to the original text? Did you change something?

Jonathan Munby: I have made some cuts, but not many. I have stuck pretty much accurately to Shakespeare’s original with a couple of additions. One thing struck me very early, I felt frustrated that there was not enough time for Shylock and Jessica. I wanted to centralize her and her story, and so I needed to give her more time on stage. I got the two actors who are in real life father and daughter and we improvised the scenes between Shylock and Jessica. Then, I had that translated into Yiddish, the one used and spoken in the ghetto in the 15th and 16th century. That’s the scene that we have inserted in the play. So when we first meet Jessica, it’s actually in a scene in Yiddish between Shylock and Jessica. I think it’s a way to begin the journey in a much more powerful way. That was an imposition of mine to the play. I have also added a very short scene in Italian. Forgive me for the Italian pronunciation of my actors, which I know it’s terrible. Again, it’s a way for me to make characters as full and as tridimensional as I can. There are impositions, but mostly the text is Shakespeare’s text pretty much uncut. Ow there’s one major cut! I have cut Gobbo’s father, which in the original text is not funny at all and so I’ve got rid of it.

Elena: Another thing that struck us incredibly was the fact that this play is about racism, but also about feminism. Portia’s character is incredibly powerful and she conveys a powerful message.

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Jonathan: Yes, I completely agree. The play for me becomes actually a metaphor and speaks beyond at the Jewish question. It becomes a play about intolerance of any other else but also intolerance of women. Portia needs to disguise herself and become a man in order to liberate herself from the constraints of her home and her family. She has extraordinary mind.

Elena: Talking about disguising oneself, I think the question of masks is really important. For example, a couple of weeks ago, we went to Teatro Goldoni and saw the “Arlecchino”, so we reflected about the meaning of the masks.

Jonathan: Mask is a metaphor. I think there is always a tension between how a character presents himself and the truth. One thing that struck me about the play was actually not just the difference between Antonio and Shylock, but that there are many many things that make them similar. They are two outsiders in a world that cannot accept them: you have a Jewish man that cannot be assimilated in a Christian world. It’s my interpretation, but I think a gay (?) in very straight Christian world will never be assimilated. So the question of what is hidden is very interesting.

Elena: And who is the worst between Shylock and Antonio? When you read the play you may think that Shylock is the bad one, but watching your play we feel compassionate toward Shylock and that he’s treated very badly and has reasons to do what he’s doing.

Jonathan: I have interest in empathy. What I want is to make people understand the character from the inside. We are all human beings and no human being is perfect. I approach each character just in the way I would approach the scrutiny of myself for my friends and my family. I think it’s important that an audience understands why the character does what he does. They don’t necessarily have to like or dislike their actions, but to understand them. So, if you are brave enough to explore this play on those terms, then nobody is sympathetic. Each character is ugly as the others. It’s a play driven by hate and there is so much hatred in the hearts of Antonio and indeed of Portia. I never want to make characters sympathetic, but I hope the audience understands.

Elena: A last question. How does it feel to perform such a play in Venice?

Jonathan: It’s very moving for us. Tonight will be the very last performance of this production. And it’s a production that started over years ago, we’ve been all over the world, in the U.K., in China and also in America. The ghetto has been the starting point for me and for my experience.

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Pietro: I wanted to ask a question about the racial differentiation done within the play. Some characters mock other ones for their accents. What do you think that facing such a theme in the situation right now in Europe but also in the USA?

Jonathan: It was terrifying for us when we started dealing with the antisemitism of the play. That play has been written four centuries ago and it’s really depressing to me that it suits our times. More recently the Brexit and indeed the popularity of Trump, we see the emergence of a kind of right wing coming back into Europe. And intolerance. The play speaks directly to the world. It’s very keen in a play to point out at any society that comes to see the play and to say “You know, this is you. This play reflects you back. Please, learn from it”.

Pietro: How much do you think the “Jewishness” of Shylock is actually a fundament of the character? Do you think the play would be much more different if the Shylock wasn’t a Jew but just a normal banker?

Jonathan: Well, his Jewishness is entangled to that character. He is a human being as anyone else. He is very humanized in this play. In English history they weren’t so many Jews till the 15th century and people in London didn’t know how a Jew looked like. They were grossly caricatured on stage with big noses. In our play this Jew asks the audience to accept the fact that he is as human as anybody else. That becomes a very starting point to understand the play.

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Elena: I think we have a last question. How is it like to work with someone like Jonathan Pryce?

Jonathan: When we first did the production, we had to build it around his schedule for “Games of thrones”. He is one of the great stage actors that we have in the U.K. It was a privilege to work with him. He never played Shylock before, so he was approaching the play and the character for the first time and so we went to this journey together. It has been a dream to work with him. It has been also fascinating to have his daughter in the play.

Lucia: Any plans for the next productions?

Jonathan: Yes. I am doing a casting for a musical in South Africa.

Pietro: How long have you been working for the Globe Theatre?

Jonathan: I am a freelance director, so I am not really based in the Globe. I have been working there for 20 years. I graduated in the U.K. and I joined the Shakespeare company as an assistant to the director. That is how I learned my craft. I have been very lucky.

Lucia: Any opinions about the theatre here in Venice? 

Jonathan: I had that feeling that the audience was very elitist and very wealthy. Maybe it’s just the Goldoni.

Francesca: I have a question about the interaction the actors had with the public. We are not used to that in the Italian theatre. Is it a choice you did or is it normal for you?

Jonathan: Well, it’s normal. If you come in London, you must go to the Globe. That is exactly the culture of doing a play there. It’s absolutely about that interaction. The plays were performed during the day time, in day light. The actors are as lit as the audience. The whole experience of telling a story was very conscious. The actors could see the audience and the audience could see the actors. It becomes very collective, very different from contemporary theatre practice where you plunge the audience into darkness and pretend that they are not there. This play is a dialogue, even soliloquy and private speeches are dialogue with the audience. But with Gobbo, for example, on the page it’s not funny. And if you don’t deliver something that is funny you deny that aspect of the play and the function of that character in the play. So I had to find something that the audience would find funny. I am blessed with actors I have and at the Globe it’s very easy to put people in the stage and to use them. Audience likes nothing more than seeing somebody being humiliated.

I find it very subversive because you get an audience excited into a party mode and clapping along they become complicit in the persecution of this Jew. They are suddenly guilty.

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