Monday, March 22, 2010

Patrick Stewart Loses Shylock Battle

As I continue through Playing Shakespeare, I’ve come to what Angela called the Battle of the Shylocks. In this episode director John Barton sits down with just Patrick Stewart and David Suchet, both of whom have played Shylock under Barton’s direction, and walks through the whole play with them – starting with look, and then accent, and then how each scene is performed.

Truthfully? I give this one to Suchet.

The two actors are diametrically opposed on the character.  I can only assume that they harbor no ill feelings toward each other because of this, but there are times when it makes you wonder.  This was no subtle battle of nuance.  Stewart starts out very clearly by saying how he didn’t even want to play the character because of all the “traditional” baggage that comes with him.  Suchet, on the other hand, comes off as if the role is the sort of thing he’s wanted to play all his life.  When Stewart suggests that he found a Shylock who “was an outsider, who was also a Jew”, Suchet counters that his Shylock “was an outsider…because he was a Jew.”  Suchet even has statistics – Shylock is called by name 6 times, but addressed as simply “Jew” 22 times.

Merchant of Venice is a controversial play, no doubt about it.  It is impossible to have an objective conversation about some topics.  David Suchet is Jewish, Patrick Stewart is not. So when Stewart feels that Shylock’s motivation is all about the money, it’s hard not to let that slip into “Patrick Stewart thinks that to be Jewish means to be all about the money.”  Since he’s about to play all the sample scenes that way I couldn’t help but wonder whether David found them to be entertaining, enlightening, or offensive.

To both actors’ credit neither of them tries to play Shylock like a good, sympathetic character.  Neither one, even if they are living an unfair life, is a nice guy.  Stewart even tells of a version where he strikes his daughter.

As they worked through the play I simply could not escape that I was watching Patrick Stewart do Shylock.  Maybe it’s because he was not in costume (which, he pointed out, included a very large beard when he played the role).  Maybe it’s just the uniqueness of his presence and my familiarity with his work. But he deliberately chose almost no accent, and everything he did he seemed to …well, *boom*.  He plays a very loud Shylock who bellows loudly about everything.   When he did slip into a normal voice he tended to speak very quickly, and  I thought I was listening to his Ebeneezer Scrooge.

Suchet, on the other hand, seemed more like Shylock to me.  Again I have to ponder, “Am I projecting? Am I giving more leeway to the Jewish guy in thinking that he looks better in the role?” I’d like to think I’m not.  How do you manage to say that the Jewish guy “plays Jewish better” without making it sound awful? His whole approach I just liked better.  He brings an accent, a posture, mannerisms, his whole character just felt better for me.

Patrick Stewart’s Shylock was just a businessman trying to get along in the world and work against a handicap he didn’t ask for (albeit a little overly dramatically).  Suchet’s was a man who was burdened with the very nature of who he was, who it just so happens was a very good businessman.


JM said...

"...Patrick Stewart’s Shylock was just a businessman trying to get along in the world and work against a handicap he didn’t ask for"

Funny you should mention his Scrooge, because what you said is very much the way I felt about his Scrooge (I assume you mean the movie-wasn't it a made for TV thing?)

I think Patrick Stewart may be "[ing] against a handicap he didn’t ask for".

Maybe a lot has to do with political correctness. If so, it's a shame, because he's a much better actor than that. It's also a shame that to be an actor anymore means to have to be the correct ethnicity "in real life". So many wonderful performances have come from actors who heretofore weren't hamstrung by this now popular "convention".
Let's face it, there are some aspects about every ethnicity/character common to the character.Jews were the money lenders and banking entities of the time--why wouldn't it be "all about the money"? To be afraid to play those aspects and "go vanilla" because one "isn't supposed to think that way" is bunk as far as I'm concerned. It limits the imagination, and acting is all about that. Besides, it's something of a double standard. Asians and African Americans and Puerto Ricans, etc. can play "white" characters, but not vice-versa anymore. Sorry, Guenevere was NOT a black lady. However...someday, my daughter--who must join the ranks of the mostly unemployed union members on her next job-- could very well be out of a job because of all of the overdone, skewed, political correctness. And she's an absolutely perfect wife for King Arthur.
It's totally out of place in a world of complete make believe.

Sorry to have strayed somewhat. And I don't mean to drag anything off topic--so no answer necessary,although it might tick somebody off--But I do believe I needed to explain what I think might be a possible answer to the "Acting Woes of Patrick Stewart".

Craig said...

I also give Suchet the win, but only by a nose. Suchet was willing, it seemed to me, to be _funnier_ in the role, to indulge some of the comic possibilities, in a way that Stewart--and Shylock was meant to be a comic villain before he completely ran away with the show.

Duane said...

I think you're right, Craig - in an original edit of this article I had mentioned that Suchet even gets some laughs, but I seem to have left that bit out of the final.

I don't know, J, whether the political correctness came from the actors legitimately, or if it was all on me reading into it. You're an actor, you tell me - when asked to play a character that carries negative stereotypical baggage, do you find it uncomfortable to escape the trap? If you play it up, you're feeding the bigotry. But if you downplay it, then perhaps you're no longer being true to the character.

JM said...

I think maybe those comic aspects Suchet was able to play may have come from a comfortableness in knowing that it was okay to "make fun of his own". Not exactly, but something like, it's okay for me, being Irish, to use the word "Mick", but not okay for someone who's not, to use it in the disparaging sense ABOUT me.

I've played several Jewish characters, none quite as famous as Shylock, (I was Bassanio the one time I did the play).
But some of these were iconic characters, so to speak--Tevye in Fiddler, Fagin in Oliver, Scrooge (if indeed he is Jewish--I don't think Dickens actually makes the distinction outright). What I made sure to do was to consult someone who WAS Jewish about stereotypical "states of mind". What are these people thinking, why, and how does that influence the character's behavior and mannerisms. It's amazing how people of ethnicity are willing to make fun of themselves--because THEY are allowed. Once they trust YOUR sincerity in being as amused and sincerely interested in the whys of "stereotypical" behavior as they are, some of the walls come down.

So, you're right, Duane, about it being a "sticky wicket" as they say. But I've always gone for the jugular and waited to be told it's "too much". I've never been told it's "too much". Because THEY KNOW it exists. But they also know I'm just trying to do the best damned honest acting job ever. Funny, human nature. :)

Craig said...

One other thing I want to throw out--it can be a trick to gague the overall effectiveness of a performance from excerpts, even the longish excerpts John Barton treated us to in this video. It still amounts to a "sip test," like the ones that convinced Coca-Cola to make their product sweeter and lighter back in the 80s.

As I say, I still give the medal to Suchet, but I think his choices were especially suited to watching a few short excerpts. If we'd spent three hours watching each of the _Merchant_ productions in full, Stewarts perhaps less showy interpretation might have had the time to impress more with its depth and complexity.

The best Patrick Stewart moment in "Playing Shakespeare" is when he gives us the statue scene from The Winter's Tale. I can't remember if that comes before or after the Duelling Shylocks installment...I was in my salad days when I saw that; it was in fact my first exposure to The Winter's Tale. There are times I really regret that I'll never get to see a Shakespeare play for the first time again.

JM said...

Good point, Craig. Totally agree. But I still don't like Stewart's interpretation of Scrooge. It was SO top hat and tails "businessman". Which is why I think he's possibly more in tune with playing less of a "character role". He was wonderful in other things he's done with the RSC. But again, more of a "straight man", if you will, for want of a better term, seems to suit him better. I've never seen his B'way version of Scrooge. Maybe you have. If so, what did you think of it?

Duane said...

Winter's Tale must come after, as I've not seen it. At least I don't think so - they did some very brief stuff from King John and Winter's Tale at the beginning, but they were very short demonstrations of couple lines at a time, nothing to write home about.

Alexi said...

Firstly, I want to agree with Craig: Patrick Stewart's very best work in Playing Shakespeare is the Leontes Scene from the end of Winter's Tale, which I believe is on the episode "Passion and Coolness."

Secondly, as someone who recently directed Merchant of Venice, I found the "Duel of the Shylocks" intensely interesting. I liked hearing about the actor's choices going into the role. For example, Stewart saw Shylock as a someone above all trying to survive in a hostile environment, so he gave him an accent more cultured and refined than that of the native Venetians. Suchet, emphasizing the cultural aspect of the role more, let Shylock use his Jewishness as a tactic more, for example, playing up references to Judaism in his "Signior Antonio" speech as a way to make Antonio feel guilty for first verbally abusing him and then asking him for money.

Both performances were interesting in that they presented clearly villainous interpretations of the character that nevertheless delayed Shylock's decision to definitely take his pound of flesh from Antonio until the very last lines of Act Three, Scene One- roughly halfway through the play, at the point where Shylock has discovered both his daughter's flight and Antonio's loss at sea.

Overall, David Suchet's performance was more interesting and effective because he was able to address, rather than ignore, such an important aspect of Shylock's character and motivation. The one thing that Stewart did I liked better was his exit in the courtroom scene. Suchet had a very minimalist exit, but Stewart had Shylock, ever the survivor, leave the stage with a forced laugh at his own expense.

As Shylock leaves, having just found out he must convert to Christianity to avoid being hanged, Gratiano jokes that he such have gone "to the gallows, not the fount." Most Shylocks either ignore this line or take it stoically, but Stewart responded with a painful, desperate laugh. This makes for a peculiarly touching and original final moment for Shylock.

Duane said...

Hi Alexi,

Thanks for the insight! I thought the endings were interesting, given that they talked about how crucial it is to find your own interpretation - but then they both sort of just walked away (no one crawled, no one howled, etc...) I saw what Stewart was going for, I just wasn't as fully convinced. Doesn't he also knock the yamulke(?) off his head immediately, like "Ok, not a Jew anymore, no problem!" I may have to go and watch that scene again, as I though the laugh was more "My enemy has made a joke, I'd better laugh to stay on his good side lest he do even worse things to me."

Alexi said...

Well, I feel almost that crawling or howling would be a bit over-the-top. I'd have to watch the episode again, but I think Stewart did remove his yarmulke. What I got from it was that the conversion was acutely painful to him, but something he had to do to keep his life and money. So the laugh came off for me as a painful mask Shylock had to make use of. It was certainly more interesting than Suchet simply walking off stage-at least out of context, as depending on the production, Suchet's exit could be a powerful moment too.

In the high school production I just directed, Shylock's driving objective once he realizes he can't have revenge on Antonio is to reduce the damage he takes. Yet he one-by-one loses his money, his control of his estate, and his religion. So Shylock's very last lines and exit were based around retaining the last thing he had- his dignity. So my Shylock removed his own yarmulke while slowly exiting, and handed it solemnly to Gratiano, who promptly tosses it to the ground. I didn't watch the Playing Shakespeare episode until after I blocked that scene, so I was fascinated to compare my production to Stewart and Suchet's versions.

catkins said...

Oh, there are so many ways to play Shylock! And what is interesting, too, is that there are so many ways for audiences to view Shylock. Merchant was a favorite play of the Nazis, so one can imagine how they viewed him. Yet modern audiences have a definite tendency to view Shylock favorably. But no matter how the actor plays him, who but a Nazi could ignore the "If you prick us, do we not bleed speech?" Some sympathy for the character must seep in.

The difficulty about the exit scene from the courtroom is typical Shakespearean blank slate. What does Shylock's exit need to express? A just Christian response for a barbaric heathen revenge? A fitting joke played on a pitiful character? A pitiful spectacle of an unjust society? The only gain to be expected of revenge? I can't imagine a more difficult exit to play.

JM said...

Reading Carl's list of possible choices, I'm reminded of the great complexity of the character and of the situation. As Barton says, (paraphrasing here) --There is no one "right" way; that way madness lies :)

I know he's been pooh-poohed in some of the high priest literary circles for saying it, but in a way, I think there's a great deal of accuracy to Harold Bloom's statement about Shakespeare being the "Inventor of the Human". At least when it comes to psycho-philosophical renderings for the page or the stage. This is especially evident when the behavior of the other set of "humans" in this play is looked at closely for what it is. Their value system looks not so august or pristine, if one listens closely to the descriptions of their "desires" or to accounts of their barbaric behavior toward those who do bleed when pricked.

Once again, even in a very sticky situation, Shakespeare explores both sides of the coin (and asks what might be sandwiched in between those 2 sides) when it comes to human nature.

Duane said...

I never faulted Bloom for his "Inventor of the Human" thing, in fact it's what attracted me to the book (I just couldn't finish the darned thing). It reminds me of how, when we were little, we would say things like "Isaac Newton invented gravity." Well no, no he didn't, it was always there. It's just that, until him, nobody saw it in quite so obvious a way. Now, when you need to understand it, you look at Newton's work and say, "Oh. Got it."

Same with Shakespeare. He didn't "invent" the human, obviously, but he gave us something akin to a recipe book so whenever we want an example of what it means to *be* human, we know right where to look.

JM said...

Re: Shakespeare,Duane said: "He didn't "invent" the human, obviously, but he gave us something akin to a recipe book so whenever we want an example of what it means to *be* human, we know right where to look."

For another topic altogether; but since you've kerneled it so well, I can't resist: The very reason it's so important for us all to know something about this Elizabethan "truth-teller." How can anyone seriously question his "relevancy" to any subject having to do with life? Yet, as we know, they do it constantly.

catkins said...

Duane, I think the reason you never faulted Harold Bloom on the "Invention of the Human" thing is that you never finished his book. What you say makes sense. Bloom's take on it is quite a bit more fatuous. He actually says not that Shakespeare shows us what makes us human, but that he actually shaped our humanity--that we were not the humans we came to be before Shakespeare showed us how. He also annoyingly over-idolized Falstaff (clearly a bit of identification going on there). Sorry about the digression, but JM brought it up first, and you encouraged him!

JM said...

"At least when it comes to psycho-philosophical renderings for the page or the stage."

Bloom had a great conceptual idea--he took it too far. I will say no more-- a deluge of encouragement though there might be--mum's the word :)

JM said...

chnSolved. Suchet's mysterious bland exit.

Having finally seen the piece, I noticed that when Stewart played Shylock, Suchet delivered Gratiano's line:

"In christening thou shalt have two godfathers,/ Had I been judge, thou shoulds't have had ten more,/To bring thee to the gallows, not to the font."

Stewart didn't deliver the line to Suchet's Shylock to interrupt his exit. The simpleness (and slowness) of the exit, I think, was in waiting for Stewart to deliver Gratiano's lines, which never came.

I agree Suchet definitely "won the battle", if there really was one going on, which didn't appear to me to be happening-- between the two actors anyway.

Interesting to note Stewart's first comment that when offered the role his first impulse was to refuse it. And the rationale involved (not necessarily wrong) in the choice to elevate the speech patterns to "high English affectation"--right in his roundhouse. I also noticed that Suchet is more comfortable with some of the knottier aspects of the textual technique, while Stewart plays it more "speechy"--also in his roundhouse. Particularly telling in this regard was the line, "I am a Jewe." Stewart threw it off and made it almost unintelligible; Suchet pronounced each single syllable slowly and deliberately. He also found many more textual cues than did Stewart (and used them to great effect) in all of the speeches.

Steve Davis said...

I'm working through the acorn tv stream of this series as I write this. In fact, I just watched the Shylock episode yesterday. I think Suchet is more convincing than Stewart in the role. The funny thing for me was that there are a couple of moments in the Suchet performance where some early signs of Poirot filter in, in the accent. I've loved the series so far, though yesterday I had to tsk-tsk Barton for completely botching a discussion of irony. Of course, sarcasm is a form of verbal irony, though there are other ways to be verbally ironic than with sarcasm. And there is also situational irony and dramatic irony. I thought if Barton had just done a little basic research, he could have spared himself a real struggle he wound up having trying to get his terminology across to the actors.