Shylock Not Shy of Controversy: A Review

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By Deena Kinarthy

At the Metro Studio Thursday opening night:
Three empty seats face the audience, and then a classically trained Jewish actor (played by John D. Huston), comes onstage dressed in Elizabethan period garb and a hooked nose, and recites the pound-of-flesh passage with pointed venom as a particularly villainous Shylock from Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice. The actor then removes the nose, and invites the audience to boo at him. John Davies is there for a “talk-back with the audience” after he has just performed this particularly controversial production of The Merchant of Venice.

He then goes on to justify his villainous portrayal of the character, art is art after all, but that to modern sensibilities the production may seem a tad unsympathetic. This production received several threatening letters and reviews. One in particular, he reads aloud, is a venomous review by a Jewish professor Marsha T. Berman in which she accuses the actor of being a self-hating Jew and a racist. How could he perform such a hateful version of this character being Jewish himself?

In Shylock, the character John Davies stirs the pot by tackling controversial and often taboo topics- namely the prevalence of anti-Semitism throughout history and that still exists today with an in-your-face candidness and an equal measure of humour and personal anecdotes. He also talks about artistic integrity and the freedom theatre artists possess to create and interpret works of art. Through various points of views, he poses the controversial argument about censorship in literature and the theatre and the history of antisemitism, quoting Christopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta, even posing the question of if Shakespeare himself was an anti-Semite. Huston’s character shows us the various ways Shylock has been played throughout history: clown, sympathetic victim, and then villain. The play-within- a-play creates such a stir of controversy that the entire fabled production is shut down. Because as he describes, at least in North America, we have become so hypersensitive and afraid of offending anyone that it has lead us to extreme censorship. The next step, he says is to rip out the play and burn it from the canon! Which is such an extreme gesture, but nonetheless seems to not phase his audience. The audience at the Metro studio on Thursday night both laughed and squirmed in their seats during several points of the show. But the questions the playwright Mark Leiren-Young poses through this actor onstage: Does every production of every play have to be comfortable? That is what theatre is all about—it should make us talk about issues like this.

John Huston, tackles the role well, showing his acting chops as he seamlessly transitions from various versions of Shylock back to the actor playing Shylock. The bareness of the stage works well in this setting, and the house lights are turned on the entire time Huston speaks, giving us the illusion that this is actually a real talk-back. It is too bad that there aren’t more shows of this production throughout Intepid Theatre’s Uno Fest, which runs until May 28th in several venues across town. Although, I’d recommend getting a copy of the script by Victoria author Mark Leiren-Young if you can get your hands on it- they were on sale after the show. Shylock, which I hear is now being toured in Prague- is sure to have a lasting impact wherever it is performed.

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