This website uses cookies. If you continue to use the site, your agreement will result in cookies being set.


Review by Polly Wittenberg

Over many years of play going, I�ve discovered a subspecies of one-handed shows which I�ll call �annuity plays.� They are usually impersonations of famous people by accomplished but less-than-superstar character actors. They�re the kind of shows that can be done in many places over many years�and thus bring a measure of financial security to those in an otherwise risky profession.

Examples of �annuity plays� that come immediately to mind are Hal Holbrook�s �Mark Twain Tonight� and Robert Morse�s �Tru� (as in Capote). The only time I ever saw Frank Barrie, the director of �Shylock�, on stage was in his one-man show �Macready!,� 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 Armstrong�s creation will be directly related to your familiarity with Shakespeare�s �The Merchant of Venice�. For those who don�t know that play well, �Shylock� holds much of interest. Set against a backdrop of the Rialto Bridge, Armstrong begins by intoning the famous �pound of flesh� 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 Shakespeare�s 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 �Merchant�, an air of contrivance seems to hang over the whole presentation--especially in the repeated references to Tubal, a minor character in Shakespeare�s 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 Armstrong�s recitals the famous speeches have far less impact than usual.

In concocting �annuity plays�, it may be better to stay away from characters that exist only in a truly great imagination. Phoebe Hoban, in her review of �Shylock� for the New York Times, has it exactly right: �Deconstructing Shakespeare is a dangerous sport.�

Polly Wittenberg

Originally published on