Playing Shylock’s Jewish Friend

Playing Shylock’s Jewish Friend

Royal Shakespeare Company’s Gareth Armstrong discusses his one-man portrayal of Tubal

The soups of the day, said the waiter, were chicken rice, potato leek and matzoh ball. Gareth Armstrong opted for the matzoh ball, I kid you not.

“Sounds appropriate for a Welshman playing a Jew,” he said.

No, not Shylock. At this point in his career, he is leaving that role to the distinguished actors who have done it through the centuries: Charles Macklin, Edmund Kean, Henry Irving, Rudolph Schildkraut, Laurence Olivier, George C. Scott, Boris Tumarin, Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino, to name the most famous.

Armstrong’s one-man show at the Perry Street Theatre is indeed called “Shylock,” and is all about Shylock and Shakespeare and anti-Semitism and history and the theater and related matters, but right at the top he informs the audience: “I’m [Shylock’s] friend. His best friend. Actually I’m his only friend… My name is Tubal. I play Tubal… T-U-B-A-L! Okay, it’s not a very big part. In fact it’s only one scene… Eight lines… [But] Tubal is crucial. To the scene. To Shylock. To the play.”

Tubal—“the only other Jewish man in the whole of Shakespeare!”

It is Tubal who lends Shylock the 3,000 ducats to lend Antonio; who journeys 200 miles each way from Venice to Genoa and back to bring the bad news about Shylock’s runaway daughter Jessica, who traded her father’s cherished engagement ring for a monkey, as well as the good news about the shipwreck misfortunes of the detested Antonio whose pound of flesh Shylock holds in bond.

Actually, writer/performer Armstrong gets some of Shylock’s greatest speeches into the piece, at second-hand, so to speak, along with highlights of some hors de Holocaust atrocities like a mass slaying of the Jews of York, England, in 1190 A.D. and the 1946 post-war massacre of 40 Polish Jews by Polish Christian believers of an ancient chestnut, the Blood Libel—that Jews make matzoh (matzoh!) from the blood of slaughtered Christian babies.

Only the night before the cup of matzoh ball soup Armstrong shared with me, he had been up at the 92nd Street Y, participating in a panel discussion of “The Merchant of Venice” with actor F. Murray Abraham, who is about to tackle the role of Shylock, and James Shapiro, author of “Shakespeare and the Jews.”

During the give and take at the Y, a man—a lawyer in his 40s—stood up to say that “The Merchant of Venice” should never be played because it incited hatred.

“He said that Shylock is more sinned against than sinning, and that all the other guys in the play are villains. It was as if he was arguing with Shakespeare,” said Armstrong. “I told him he’d answered his own question.”

Gareth Armstrong, who has an impressive background as actor and director with the Royal Shakespeare Company and with various theater companies in Wales, has indeed himself played Shylock, with the Salisbury Rep in 1998.

“I’ve also played Tubal before, though on a very strange tour that took in Tokyo and Iceland—a sort of split week, or split month. I played both Tubal and Bassanio ‘—whose need for the wherewithal to court fair Portia starts all the trouble—’ a sort of divided performance. That was when I was young enough to play Bassanio.”

Al Pacino has said that finally, in his 60s, he was old enough to play Shylock. Armstrong was 48—“about the right age to have a teenage daughter”—when he played Shylock at Salisbury. “He’s called ‘old Shylock’ in the play, but I don’t think that means what we now mean by it.”

More like “old dog”?

“Yes. Exactly.”

Born June 26, 1948, in the Welsh mining town of Tedegar, Armstrong is now 56. His grandfather was a miner. His father was a Welsh-speaking Presbyterian minister.

“There’s something about the Welch and the Jews. They do say that Welsh is one of the lost tribes.”

Hey, Mr. Armstrong, Richard Burton married a Jew—twice! Dylan Thomas had a wife named Caitlin who might as well have been a Jew, she was that tough.

“I went to the same school as Dylan Thomas,” the actor said, skidding over the lame jokes. “Swansea Grammar School. Some of the teachers there hadn’t liked him.” Too non-conformist.

For all the impact and sharp outline of Shylock, he’s only in five of the 25 scenes of “The Merchant of Venice”—“not a big part, so I had plenty of time do research.” Of great assistance was John Gross’ ‘Shylock: Four Hundred Years of a Legend.’”

Armstrong also spent some time looking at prompt scripts at the Folger Collection in Washington, D.C. “Unfortunately, you Americans have all the best folios.”

The research has enabled Armstrong to re-create in performance a vivid stage effect of Henry Irving’s, when Shylock returns home to find his house ravaged and daughter Jessica departed. That is also the moment when Charles Macklin, a raw broth of a bruiser born Charlie MacLaughlin of Donegal, Ireland, who had busted Oliver Cromwell’s ban against theater and had been playing Shylock for 40 years, at the age of 90 in 1799 finally forgot his lines, and stood there, and apologized for it and walked off.

Yes, Gareth Armstrong has seen the current “Merchant of Venice” film, and reserves comment. No, he has not seen Mel Gibson’s “Passion of the Christ,” which re-echoes the good-old Blood Libel.

“Don’t think I could bring myself to see it. So gory. Like some cathedral in Mexico City, where all you see is crucifixion blood.”

There is a happy—and that is not to say sappy—ending for everybody in “The Merchant of Venice”—everybody except Shylock. “Thou torturest me, Tubal!” he exclaims when he learns that Jessica has traded that ring for a monkey. “It was my turquoise. I had it of Leah [his dead wife, Jessica’s mother] when I was a bachelor.”

And then, in an extraordinary line: “I would not have given it for a wilderness of monkeys.”

Which says it all. Such is the world. A wilderness of monkeys.

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