Theatre Review: SHYLOCK – Waterside Arts, Sale

Part history lecture and part dramatic performance, Gareth Armstrong’s one-man’s performance of SHYLOCK is powerful and mesmerising.

5 out of 5 stars

Who is Shylock? A caricature? A grotesque? A construction of two thousand years of persecution? All these questions are posed and answered in Gareth Armstrong’s one man tour de force, Shylock, where using the device of Tubal, an eight line and one scene associate of Shylock, he takes us on a tour of not only the play but the systematic antisemitism that informed the play, fuelled the play and ultimately continues to contribute towards the stereotype of the Jew money lender.

Even the word “shylock” has been taken to create an insult on somebody’s character; a mean spirited individual who regards the pursuit of wealth above all. But is this a misappropriation? As the play tells us usury was one of the very few professions open to Jews as they were expelled from country after country and regarded as evil. However a reading of the play with the added background context shows that Shylock is more a creature of his own circumstances than any negative stories Shakespeare had heard; there is doubt that Shakespeare had ever met a Jew so the character is drawn in stereotype but for all this there is pathos and despair under the veneer of the hard nosed businessman.

Gareth Armstrong is a total delight in his powerful and mesmerising one man retelling of the tale. Part history lecture, part dramatic performance there is not one moment that he does not hold the audience rapt, a pin could have dropped and sounded like a tolling bell. There are some laughs, not many and mainly at Tubal’s expense, but hard historical truths are delivered both recent and over hundreds of years in the making and even the bible gets used to illustrate the first instance of antisemitism. There is no pity, no “woe is me” but a simple “this is how it is” in the telling of such facts. Along with intertwining the key Shylock moments with the reflected views of the time is an effective and compelling device which takes the audience fully inside both the character and how he would have been perceived by the audience throughout various periods in history; from Shakespeare’s original up to Nazi Germany’s love of the play, no doubt to reinforce the views of their respective time.

The Merchant of Venice is seldom seen now in its original staging, no doubt due to the problematic nature of the character of Shylock but this should not be a reason for avoidance. In this work Gareth Armstrong unboxes the creation of the character as a reflection of the continued suspicion Jews found themselves under. The writing flows seamlessly and the performance is electric, moulding and guiding the audience throughout the tale. This should be a must see for anyone who thinks critically and has ever wondered why Shylock is cast as one of the great villains of Shakespeare, when in fact he is just a man trying to do his best in a world that is stacked against him.

SHYLOCK played at Waterside Arts, Sale, on 26 October 2023