‘Shylock’ a true theatrical treat

Gareth Armstrong offers the final performance in Greece of his one-man show «Shylock» tonight in Thessaloniki. Seen all too briefly in Athens earlier this week, «Shylock» is a true theatrical treat. Written and performed by Armstrong, who has taken the show just about everywhere in the world over the past four years, the play is at once entertaining and disconcerting. Tubal, a character almost nobody recalls from «The Merchant of Venice» and who gets just eight lines in Shakespeare’s work, tells the story of his friend Shylock, all the while putting himself very much at center stage, and in the process casting history in a new and uncomfortable light. In a mix of scenes from Shakespeare interwoven with Tubal’s addresses to the audience, Armstrong demonstrates that anti-Semitism has been on the European agenda just about forever. «Most people think it was the Nazis who introduced the yellow Star of David, but it was a European directive 800 years ago, from Pope Innocent III,» says Tubal, recounting how Jews were expelled from one European country to another before finding refuge in what became the original Venetian ghetto. Playing the part of Shylock in «The Merchant of Venice» in Salisbury in 1998 was his inspiration to write this play «about marginalizing and demonizing people who are different,» Armstrong told Kathimerini English Edition. «Shylock is a very small part; he only appears in five scenes. I thought I could easily get a grasp of the character,» says Armstrong, who admitted finding the character much more complex than he had expected. A one-man show presents peculiar challenges. «There are all sorts of technical problems,» explains Armstrong; «how to sustain the audience’s interest, how to deal with talking to yourself, and how to tell the story of the play.» Here he acknowledges the contribution of director Frank Barrie: «He’s a wonderful director who has also played solo; he seems to know all about that relationship with an audience if you’re solo.» Humor is one of the keys: «It’s easier to take the grim stuff if it’s interspersed with humor,» says Armstrong. «You’ve got to keep the audience’s attention. You’re all they’ve got to look at, so you’ve got to keep them working hard. You’ve got to keep this bubble of interest going.» With a character like Shylock, he explains, «you can’t like him, but you have to understand him. You have to make the audience laugh with you or at you.» This Armstrong manages, and to great effect, with lightning transformations from the stock Jewish stereotype of the theater, to Tubal – always insisting that his tiny role is crucial – to Shylock himself, seeking «just» retribution from the man who has spat on and demeaned him in public, to Portia. Playing with the tension between the story as we know it and other possible outcomes, Armstrong takes the story beyond the end of Shakespeare’s play, speculating on what happened to the characters in a compelling production. «Shylock» was brought to Greece by the British Council. The Thessaloniki performances are part of the Spring Theater festival. At the Amalia Theater, 70 Amalias, Thessaloniki, tel 2310.378.314.