I’m usually pretty quick to dismiss the most recent efforts of guys like Jack Nicholson, Al Pacino and Robert De Niro. At this point in their careers, they phone in their performances. They’re the same character in every film. Even Clint Eastwood’s angry old man routine is getting kind of stale.
On Thursday I saw Al Pacino play Shylock in The Merchant of Venice. I’m like everybody else. I get sucked into these shows because it’s a thrill to see if a name-brand actor can deliver the goods on stage. Holy Mother of Jesus, this guy has it. I saw Pacino transform. He vanished into his role as Shylock and became a completely new, fully-formed human being—unrecognizable from anything he’s done on film. It was a pretty impressive feat.
This is an emotionally complicated piece to sit through. You find yourself laughing at the comedic aspects but also watching in abject horror as Shylock is, quite unfairly, stripped of his business, his daughter and his faith by what are supposed to be the “good” Christians of Venice. (Every one of them a blatant anti-Semite, which I suppose was all the rage in 1597.) One of his punishments, none of which, it can be argued, he deserved, required that he abandon his Jewish faith and become a Christian. In one of the final scenes, a center section of the stage opens and a pool of calf-deep water rises. He is forcefully dunked three times and baptized by a priest, while his Jewish family looks on in horror.
After that we all had a good laugh at the lighthearted closing scene where Portia’s husband is made to look foolish by her clever manipulations.
During the trial scene, dear Lily Rabe stood her ground and gave as good as she got. An excellent Portia. The play really was just the two of them, though. The other actors were fine, but I don’t think Shakespeare fleshed out their characters very well. There was only so much they could do with the roles.
Have a look at this brief clip. This is how it’s done.
Al Pacino in the Shakespeare in the Park production of The Merchant of Venice.