Interview: Patrick Stewart
The actor best known as Star Trek's Captain Jean-Luc Picard is on a mission to make Shylock more likeable
A kippah-wearing Patrick Stewart rehearsing the role of Shylock. He says he hopes he has found more diversity in the character
The news that the Royal Shakespeare Company is to stage another major production of The Merchant of Venice would have been met with world-weary sighs in some quarters.
Many Jewish theatre-goers regard the play as verging on antisemitism and feel that the constant revivals signal a callous disregard for Jewish discomfort - it is a view that has been expressed by playwright Sir Arnold Wesker in the past.
But with this latest outing, even those who hate the play will have reason to look forward to the reunion of director Rupert Goold and Sir Patrick Stewart who will play Shylock.
Goold is the director who proved with his productions of Enron and Romeo and Juliet that subjects as dry as big business and plays that have been exhausted by their popularity can result in truly exciting theatre.
With Merchant, the rumour is that Goold's production is going to push the boundaries again by moving the action from Venice to Vegas.
"I'm saying nothing," says Stewart when I ask him if there is any truth in the rumour. We meet at the RSC's London office, its walls decorated with pictures of the company's fine actors, though none of them is finer than the actor in the room who has just ordered a turkey sandwich for lunch. "We've been sworn to secrecy," he adds.
Stewart's performance as Shylock will be his final RSC role for a good while at least, marking the end of an extraordinary chapter in his career. For the last five years or so the former Star Trek and X-Men star turned his back on Hollywood in the hope of rejuvenating his theatre career. That hope was fulfilled. Stewart has played a variety of roles, usually to great acclaim. His Shylock follows his superbly icy Prospero, a stunningly Stalinist Macbeth, not to mention productions of Mamet, Ibsen, and Beckett's Waiting for Godot, which was rightly billed as the theatrical event of a lifetime, in which Stewart played Vladimir opposite Sir Ian McKellen's Estragon.
For me, Shylock's hate and loathing comes from decades of personal and historical abuse and mockery
It all started for Stewart at his West Riding school and with the Jew, Shylock. "The first time I spoke Shakespeare's words was when my English teacher at my secondary modern school had my class read the trial scene in The Merchant of Venice," he says. "It was the first time I ever held a copy of Shakespeare in my hand and it was certainly the first time I ever had Shakespeare's words in my mouth. That's when it happened for me."
Stewart admits to immersing himself in his roles to the exclusion of everything else in his life, sometimes including relationships - there are two former wives. This time round, he has prepared for his latest encounter with Shylock - there have been two previous stage performances - by spending time with Rabbi Lionel Blue - who told him about the full impact the character would have felt from his daughter's betrayal - and by going to Israel.
"My first thought was to drive from Cairo to Jerusalem," says Stewart. "And then my son said: 'Don't you have to go through Gaza?', and I said: 'Oh, um…' and then I got a map and saw that there was this thing called the Sinai desert. So no, I didn't drive to Jerusalem. But what I did was to fly to Tel Aviv and spend four days largely in Jerusalem. A good friend of mine here has connections in Israel and he set some things up for me."
One thing Stewart would have been ready for in Israel was any conversations about Merchant's reputation for antisemitism. "It is not antisemitic," he insists when I put the question. "In fact, it is an indictment of Christianity."
He paraphrases one of Shylock's speeches. "You do all these things. You're my teachers. I learn from you…" and then, as the role takes over the man, Stewart's voice deepens, the eyes narrow and suddenly, despite the jeans and casual shirt, it is Shylock himself sitting opposite. "If you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that…
"So you see, it's an absolute indictment of Christianity. For me, Shylock's hate and loathing comes from decades of personal abuse, historical abuse and mockery, to the extent that it induces a recklessness. He knows that if he puts that knife into Antonio's body, he's never going to get out of the room."
The play, maintains Stewart, is a justification of violence, a view he came to while playing the role in director John Barton's 1979 RSC production. And with each of Stewart's Shylocks his view of the role has also developed. "I think to begin with, what I did in 1964 at the Bristol Old Vic was a very unthinking Shylock - it was a very traditional, conventional, rather sentimental version of the play.
"Then in 1979 I remember John Barton saying to me before rehearsals: 'The important thing about Shylock is that he is a bad Jew and he is a bad man. He is a bad individual'. And so I very much explored that side of it. I was brutal to Jessica. I was angry and violent, and messed up. But now I hope - well, I know - that I have found more ambiguity in the role, more diversity, more contradictions, more elements that make Shylock a human being."
For many, one of the tests of this Merchant will be how it compares to Trevor Nunn's 1999 landmark production starring Henry Goodman. That production showed that it was possible to put on the play without causing great offence. Stewart gives a clue to the approach that may make this Shylock more sympathetic figure than the Shylocks of his past.
"I have this dream that at every performance there will be one person who has never seen The Merchant of Venice and doesn't know the story, and that after Shylock's first scene they're going to say: 'I hope he comes back soon. He's good fun'. I hope a lot of the time he is likable."
'The Merchant of Venice' opens at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon on May 13. Box office: 0844 800 1110