In Gareth Armstrong's one-man Shylock, the Welsh-born Royal Shakespeare Company veteran uses his considerable charisma to bring not Shylock, but "his best friend . . . actually his only friend," Tubal (the other Jewish man in Shakespeare's corpus), to life. Although poor Tubal gets only eight lines in The Merchant of Venice, he makes a splendid mouthpiece for Armstrong's taut exploration of Shylock's legend and its legacy. Effortlessly steering us from text to context and back again, Armstrong tempers scenes and speeches from the play with a healthy dose of history: the persecution of Jews in Europe, pre-Shakespearean dramatic depictions of them (such as Marlowe's well-poisoning, cliché-riddled Barabas), and a lively gallery of Shylock's past. Tubal, a loyal friend indeed, explains Shylock's behavior thus: "He's a single parent, from an ethnic minority, got a very stressful job, and he lives in a ghetto. Of course he was strict, he had to be." Moments like this, poised midway between shtick and sincerity, justify Armstrong's decision to avoid all the big polemical questions and let the play, its prehistory, and its reception speak for themselves. And the intimate, brick-lined Perry Street Theatre, recently reopened after nine years, proves the perfect space in which to do so. Viewers disappointed by the current soggy, text-butchering film adaptation of The Merchant of Venice are hereby urged to hie themselves to this stirring production, as is everyone else.
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