Shylock

Guy Masterson and Gareth Armstrong deliver a tour-de-force of history, drama and comedy in this one-actor show. Starting with Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, we are taken on a journey that spans both centuries of Jewish persecution and centuries of the play and its various incarnations. What does it mean to be Shylock, at once the villain and the victim, and the star of his play; what does it mean to be any Jew throughout history?

Well-researched and well-delivered, this is a forceful and thought-provoking piece of theatre.

This show, written and directed by Gareth Armstrong, takes a look at what Shylock means for his creator, for his audiences then and today, and for the only other Jew in Shakespeare’s works—Tubal. This is Masterson’s role—underlooked in the original, perhaps, only eight lines long: but vital. Tubal is an essential character on this journey, but Masterson flits between roles as the narrative switches from history to theatre and back again. We hear about the slaughter of Jews in York in 1190 woven in with the performance of Barabbas from The Jew of Malta by Shakespeare’s contemporary, Christopher Marlowe. The origin of the blood libel slips into a performance of scenes from the Bible. Folklore, theatrical conventions, and the Puritans; superstition, politics, and tragedy. This is compelling material, and with its careful structure, and an actor as skilled as Guy Masterson, it is displayed to the fullest advantage: not a lecture (though it is heavy on the historical information) but a piece of theatre in its own right.

Masterson is in complete control, both our jolly guide with plenty of jokes up his sleeves and the angry Jew who has been silenced too long. That’s just in his role as narrator. He slips in and out of multiple characters throughout: Shylock, Tubal, Barabbas, Portia, Pontius Pilate, Charles Matlin, Thomas and Henrietta Bowdler, and Hitler, to name a few.

There’s well-timed comedy (especially of the ironic variety), but a steely determination to uncover aspects of the truth underneath. At one point Masterson, exasperated with people who want to cut and edit Shylock’s part, demands that the plays are just left to speak for themselves. This is a show that aims to deepen our understanding of the issues around Jews, history, and the theatre, not to dictate or proselytise. A word for the set and the techs as well: both are stark and effective, well integrated with the performance. Well-researched and well-delivered, this is a forceful and thought-provoking piece of theatre. 

Reviews by Fiona Mossman

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The Blurb

One of the most globally successful shows of the last two decades, Gareth Armstrong’s Shylock explores the tragic, tempestuous, often unbelievable life of fiction’s most famous Jew. Villain? Victim? Or is Shylock someone even more intriguing? Guy Masterson’s award-nominated, gloriously comedic yet moving performance, gets to the core of Shylock’s issues, rekindling his extraordinarily divisive role in The Merchant of Venice. Shylock confronts and confounds the stereotypes. For students, Shakespeare aficionados or lovers of theatre in general, Shylock brings Shakespeare to life, history to the forefront and magic to the stage. ‘An exceptional piece of theatre’ (Independent).

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