Review by Polly Wittenberg
Over many years of play going, Iï¿½ve discovered a subspecies of one-handed shows which Iï¿½ll call ï¿½annuity plays.ï¿½ They are usually impersonations of famous people by accomplished but less-than-superstar character actors. Theyï¿½re the kind of shows that can be done in many places over many yearsï¿½and thus bring a measure of financial security to those in an otherwise risky profession.
Examples of ï¿½annuity playsï¿½ that come immediately to mind are Hal Holbrookï¿½s ï¿½Mark Twain Tonightï¿½ and Robert Morseï¿½s ï¿½Truï¿½ (as in Capote). The only time I ever saw Frank Barrie, the director of ï¿½Shylockï¿½, on stage was in his one-man show ï¿½Macready!,ï¿½ about a famous British actor-manager of the 19th century. Now we have Gareth Armstrong conjuring a famous fictional character.
I think that your reaction to Armstrongï¿½s creation will be directly related to your familiarity with Shakespeareï¿½s ï¿½The Merchant of Veniceï¿½. For those who donï¿½t know that play well, ï¿½Shylockï¿½ holds much of interest. Set against a backdrop of the Rialto Bridge, Armstrong begins by intoning the famous ï¿½pound of fleshï¿½ speech and ends by playing multiple parts in the trial scene. Interspersed are lots of interesting data about the position of Jews in Britain in the 16th century, the source of Shakespeareï¿½s play, the portrayal of Jews in other plays of the time, and famous actors who made their names in the role. Would that most classes in Shakespearean historiography were presented with as much fluidity and style.
For those who are more familiar with ï¿½Merchantï¿½, an air of contrivance seems to hang over the whole presentation--especially in the repeated references to Tubal, a minor character in Shakespeareï¿½s original. The only way to really get to know Shylock (not some generalized money-lender or iconic Jew) is to see him in the play where, for example, you can see him interacting with Antonio the merchant or Jessica his rebellious daughter, instead of just hearing about it. And, taken out of their context, in Armstrongï¿½s recitals the famous speeches have far less impact than usual.
In concocting ï¿½annuity playsï¿½, it may be better to stay away from characters that exist only in a truly great imagination. Phoebe Hoban, in her review of ï¿½Shylockï¿½ for the New York Times, has it exactly right: ï¿½Deconstructing Shakespeare is a dangerous sport.ï¿½