Rachel Pickup had never seen The Merchant of Venice when director Jonathan Munby cast her in the leading role of Portia at Shakespeare's Globe in London last year. "I read it in school and I confess I wasn't much in love with it," Pickup recalls. "Not just because it's so dark, but, great swaths of it, in reading, haven't interested me. It was good for me to come to it with never having seen it, actually."
After a successful 2015 engagement at the outdoor Globe, the production has arrived in New York with its British cast, including two-time Tony winner Jonathan Pryce as the moneylender Shylock, in tow. After this Lincoln Center Festival run ends on Sunday, the show will embark on a tour heading first to Washington, D.C.'s Kennedy Center and the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, and then overseas to China and Venice itself. It will also be screened in cinemas throughout the summer and fall.
Noting that its themes of prejudice and ugliness are now more relevant than ever, Pickup is ready to take this play around the world, and shine a light on the history that seems to be repeating itself.
For those who haven't seen the production, or won't be able to see it, can you talk about Jonathan Munby's vision?
The overriding thing we wanted to focus on is embracing the really ugly world of it. We set it in 15th-century, 16th-century Venice. It's a society where racism existed and prejudices of all sorts, not just against the Jews. We didn't want to shy away from that. It's quite dark, unapologetic. We really bring out the story of Shylock and [his daughter] Jessica [who leaves the Jewish faith to marry a Christian]. I'm reluctant to describe what the ending is, but it's quite spectacular. It's a very powerful moment of theater. [Munby] had a very strong belief, and I agreed, that the nasty side of Portia should be left in. Oftentimes, a lot of people cut lines like, "Let all of his complexion choose me so," [about the Prince of Morocco], things like that.
That sort of permeates your performance as the play goes on, especially in the last scene, which is played a lot darker than it could be.
It's very difficult given the text we have in Act Five, but it's really important to me that it isn't frivolous or trivial. It's obviously nowhere near quote-unquote the Shylock story. I understand why sometimes people even cut all of Act Five. But I think Portia undergoes a massive change in the trial [scene]. Her life has been cloistered and golden. She sees this ugly real world and it puts a different tone on the relationship with her husband and what their life will be.
The trial scene, where Portia disguises herself and takes down Shylock, is pretty intense. What is it like to play that with Jonathan Pryce every night?
It's a thriller of a scene, isn’t it? He is truly magnificent. I think it's the most magnificently crafted performance, and I feel like a better actor when I'm onstage with him. He's got this wealth of experience and skill and he just knows exactly what he's doing. Being onstage with somebody like that is inspiring. He's so utterly present and incredibly generous. It's very easy to be the big massive star and not be so, but he's quite the opposite. It's very thrilling and I feel unspeakably lucky. It's a rather saccharine answer, but I mean it. [laughs]
It's kind of scary how relevant the ugliness of the characters' prejudices is to things that are happening in the real world.
We didn't want to shy away from that. It's absolutely vital to show at this time, at the state the world is in. In Europe and the UK with Brexit, and what's going on here, there's so much oppression that actually still exists. [People] will now feel absolutely fine saying they're not happy with immigrants or foreigners or whatever they want to refer to them as. It's really upsetting and shaming, actually.
On a much lighter note, tell me about the tour stops. There's New York, Washington D.C., Chicago, Venice, and China?
Yeah, New York, D.C., Chicago, China, a couple of weeks back at the Globe, and then we finish in Venice, which is thrilling. We were originally going to do the play in the original Ghetto, which is now where Ruth Bader Ginsburg is doing Merchant this summer, so she beat us to it. I love her. We're doing six different spots in China, which feels like a fantasy at the moment. I've never been to that part of the world. It'll be fascinating see how it goes down. Who knows?