During his career, Shakespeare only ever created one Jewish character that had more than eight lines of dialogue. Shylock, in The Merchant of Venice, is a character that has grown in importance over the centuries. In fact, a lot of people think that Shylock is the merchant of Venice. He isn’t. He is only present in four of twenty scenes, but because he is portrayed as such a villainous and horrible person, he is a character that cannot be forgotten.
While playing Shylock in a production of The Merchant of Venice, actor, playwright and amateur theatre historian Gareth Armstrong began to wonder about the evolution of this character.
“It even happened in the rehearsal period,” Armstrong said during Sunday-at-the-Saidye at the Saidye Bronfman Centre. “While everyone else was off discussing their characters’ relations to one another and how to do their scenes together, I was left all on my own. Just as their characters wanted nothing to do with the Jew, the actors stopped inviting me out for drinks after rehearsal.”
It was this experience that urged the son of a Presbyterian minister to write a play about the historical treatment of Jews.
As the lights come up on the opening scene in Shylock, Armstrong has only two chairs, a table, and a trunk to work with. Not only is he the playwright, he is also the sole actor in the production. Although the main speech is from the perspective of Tubal, the only other Jew in The Merchant of Venice and Shylock’s only friend, Armstrong also tells his story through excerpts from Shakespeare himself.
During the first act (and strangely, not in the second) he mixes in a few monologues from points in history when times were at their worst for the Jewish people. Armstrong takes us to York, England when Jews were forced to choose between death and becoming Christians. Then to a time long before McGill had a ghetto – when Jews could only live in this very tiny area of town. Eight hundred years before Nazis insisted Jews wear the Star of David they were already wearing various symbols to warn people they were Jewish. Once Hitler began his reign of terror he would only allow one Shakespearean play to be produced within the concentration camps – The Merchant of Venice.
Armstrong’s performance is clearly that of a classically trained Shakespearean actor. He speaks with the confidence and authority of the type of performer who may very well be at his best in a one-man show.
The only trouble with Shylock is in the writing. Although it is packed full of historical facts from beginning to end, the structure varies between acts. In the first, Armstrong uses direct monologues from a person experiencing the event in time.
In the second act he gives us jot-notes from the Holocaust during the Second World War, but all monologues are from The Merchant of Venice. For some reason, Armstrong stops after Hitler is taken out of power. What about now? How are Jews portrayed in theatre now? How are they treated now?
Shylock is being performed at the Saidye Bronfman Centre, 5170 chemin de la Cote-Ste-Catherine, until April 6. Tickets range from $16 to $38. For more info check out www.saidyebronfman.org.