An interview with the actor who is redefining Shylock in "The Merchant of Venice". In three parts.I. An Impromptu Micro-Master Class
We are at the Cutler Majestic Theatre. F. Murray Abraham stands and tells the interviewer, "Do you want to see something? Come with me."
He walks to near center stage and pulls the interviewer close. "This is what we call a hotspot," he says. "If you stand over here and speak out that way. Just speak up there, up to that balcony."
"Hello upper balcony," the interviewer says. She is not an actor. She does not know how to project. But it turns out, here, she does not need to.
"Can you hear that?" Abraham says, marveling at the amplification and clarity of the sound. "It's extraordinary. The theater you're in dictates so much of the performance. More than it gets credit for."
Does that make an actor, even one as seasoned to the stage as Abraham, more vulnerable?
"More vulnerable?" He thunders, suddenly standing straight, somehow causing his heavy woollen coat to billow in slow motion around him. "My dear, when I'm on stage, they are vulnerable." He points to the seats, and then to his own chest. "I am the dangerous one."II. From Salieri to Shylock: Anti-Heroes, Two
Abraham is commanding. Controlling. Courageous. The 71-year old made his name playing the tortured, jealous antihero Salieri, in Milos Forman's 1984 film, "Amadeus". Abraham won the Academy Award for that performance. Standing next to him on the stage, the interviewer can feel a similar, barely contained quivering rage Abraham is pouring into his performances of another antihero: Shylock, the Jewish moneylender in Shakespeare's, "The Merchant of Venice."
This role is important for him now, he's said in another interview. "I think my take on Shylock is a reflection of what I am trying to accomplish with my own life," he told the Los Angeles Times. "I am trying to find some peace that will allow me to look at the world, examine it, live with it in a positive way. I don't want to walk around angry all the time."
And when an actor wants to be great, he takes on the great roles, Abraham adds, precisely because critics are familiar with the role and its history. "You're a target," he says.
A target, yes, for critics who are happy to feast on the frailties of actors who know the part has been done before, and done better. Except this time. Critics put Abraham's Shylock on par with Laurence Olivier's. It is being called among the greatest realizations of the role, ever.
The actor demurs. "It's up to you not to erase the past, but to put your mark on the present. That's really hard. I guess I lucked out. As far as I'm concerned, every role I ever do has my stamp on it. Sometimes my stamp isn't very good." He laughs, knowing that this time it is very good.
We sit down in the plush velvet boxed seating section of the theater. There are only a few hours to go before the night's performance. Theater staff are preparing back stage. Occasionally, we hear a door slam. Occasionally, staff walk past our seats. Occasionally, Abraham explodes.
"We're having a thing here!" He announces to passing staff, gesturing to the interviewer. "Quiet! Thank you."
Is it this complex, unpredictable humanity - one that seems to dwell naturally within him - that Abraham tries to bring to Shylock?
"It's how I approach every character that I do," he says. "It's important to elucidate that [especially with this role]. Jews on the stage have been represented as devils, as anything but human beings."
He digresses into an impassioned stream of consciousness about the inhumanity of American politicians. He calls them "pigs". Yes, he knows he is painting them with the same broad brush as Shakespeare painted Jews. He calms. The interviewer feels as if she's witnessing Abraham replace the lid on a creative spirit on a low, slow, but barely contained boil.
"It's important to articulate Shylock's humanity in clear terms. So that when [audiences] hear these terrible, anti-Semitic things dumped on him, they know, this is wrong. And by the same token it might wake them up to their own racism."
This staging of "The Merchant of Venice" is unafraid to cut close to the bone in other ways. Director Darko Tresnjak has pulled the play out of the Venice of fog, festivals and doges, and placed it in the middle of a busy modern-day trading floor. The characters wear capitalist gray suits. They are the master of the universe-type financiers.
"It speaks to our time," Abraham says. "They've practically destroyed America, brought it to its knees. And no one went to jail. This play deals with injustice in the justice system, and that's exactly what's happening in our country today."
But could this treatment make Shylock a less sympathetic character, the interviewer wonders? When it comes to their economic well-being, people feel as if they have been asked for their pound of flesh.
"And it's been taken!" Abraham says. He believes that the treatment makes Shylock more sympathetic, not less, as he is the one ultimately manipulated by Venice's judges. The message is connecting with audiences, Abraham says. "As one member of the audience once said, sotto voce, but loud enough to hear, 'Don't fight city hall.'"III. "Lord M was harder."
Abraham's Shylock hasn't drawn the same kind of attention enjoyed by that other Shylock of the season: Al Pacino's Broadway take on the Jewish moneylender. Abraham brushes off the difference, saying that marquee-placement isn't the reason why he's taken on Shylock in this traveling production.
"The reason why actors should do the classics: It tests you. You're invited by Shakespeare to do anything at all. Try your voice, your imagination, because he can take it no matter what you do. Most actors are not willing to take that risk."
To illustrate the point, he tells a story about Burt Lancaster.
"I don't even know if you know who that is," he asks the interviewer. (She does.) "I met him in Rome, shortly after [the film] 'Atlantic City'. I said to him, 'Congratulations on the great notices.' And you know what he said?" - Abraham drops his voice into a gravelly register - "He said, 'Sometimes you just get lucky.' Can you believe that! He's been a star for 50 years! That's the way I feel. Sometimes you just get lucky."
Luck, however, can't be all that's at play here. Abraham has been sitting with this character, studying Jewish history, stretching and exercising his interpretation of Shylock in workshops since 2006. He has worked at it, and worked hard.
Suddenly, the actor turns coy, even humble. "Yes, I guess you can say that. It has worked to my benefit."
He says Shylock is a treat to play, and easier than Lear or MacBeth. (Abraham refuses to say the name of Shakespeare's character, or its namesake play. He fears the theatrical taboo, and following acting superstition and convention, insists on calling it only, "The Scottish play.")
"[Shylock] is so beautifully engineered. There's lots of time to rest between the scenes," he says. "In the Scottish play, Lord M talks about how there's no rest in sleep, so you shouldn't rest between scenes. It should be played like a rocket. Shakespeare was no dummy."
We are nearing the end of the interview. The night's performance is only 90 minutes away. The interviewer tests her luck.
"What is the key to your craft?" she asks. "When you come to the moment in 'The Merchant of Venice' where you have to deliver the famous lines, when you have to say, 'If you prick us, do we not bleed?', what is your approach?"
"That's a secret!" Abraham leans back and laughs. Loud. "You just step up to the plate and do it, that's all. I'm a serious actor, but I have fun with it...but I teach 'serious actors', too. And you know what I tell my students?"
He leans forward and raises a finger to the interviewer's nose.
"Don't be afraid."Guest:
- F. Murray Abraham, Academy Award winning actor
- The Merchant of Venice at ArtsEmerson
This segment aired on April 8, 2011.