Masterful portrayals of villians, victims, vice and villages

By Janet McAllister, Dionne Christian

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Guy Masterson in a scene from Shylock.
Guy Masterson in a scene from Shylock.

What: Shylock
Where & when: Herald Theatre, Aotea Centre; last performance, 7pm

Study sociology and early on, you'll hear the term "social construction of enemies" - it's jargon, a sanitised term to explain how you demonise a group of people so your group can fight and, if necessary, kill them.

Popular culture and propaganda, not mutually exclusive and both packed with imagery and jingoistic language, are used de-humanise potential enemies then, once you no longer see them as human, the heavy artillery - or drones - are more easily deployed.

Watching visiting British actor Guy Masterson's Shylock reminded me of these learnings because, at times, it seemed like a lecture but one of the most poignant, powerful and well-developed I've seen or heard.

The premise - like the set, sound and lighting design - is simple but used to great effect: Masterson takes Shylock, the Jewish money-lender who, in Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, demands a pound of flesh for an unpaid debt, and ostensibly explores how the character has been interpreted during the last 400 years.

He questions why Shakespeare created Shylock: was he sticking with stereotypes of his day and writing a villain or was he pleading for greater understanding on behalf of an entire group? If the latter, who was/is the real villain of the piece?

To do so, Masterson skilfully blends culture and history - figures from Dracula to Hitler; events as diverse as the Catholic church's Lateran Council and World War II are referenced. The incidents he relates are often horrific, the inhumanity shown to one group by others sickening.

It could become overwhelming, but there's some clever comedy which frequently comes via Tubal the other Jewish man in The Merchant of Venice. Masterson plays with language and physical comedy, but never lets it take over.

It means you can't help but see contemporary parallels with what plays out in the world today; it's no longer confined to anti-Semitism nor is it simple or straightforward, but thought-provoking and complex. It becomes about the way culture is used to create villains, victims and stereotypes and, simultaneously, how it can be used to re-create these, to bring humanity back.

Reviwed by Dionne Christian

What: Under Milk Wood
Where & when: Herald Theatre, Aotea Centre; last performance Saturday, 2pm

Welsh poet Dylan Thomas - namesake of a Nobel laureate - was a celebrated reprobate and in his gently comic 1953 masterpiece "play for voices", the reprobate shows affection for his fellow disgraces: the village drunks, the fallen women.

In this wonderfully-worded slice-of-life, an otherwise sleepy day in a sleepy bay is energised by raw lust and unmet desire (denied by the respectables). The residents live pruriently through wistful nostalgia and each other's small scandals.

Guy Masterson's solo performance of the 69 characters is an impressive and enjoyable act of stamina: it's wonderful to see as well as hear the material; I now understand why the helmet of PC Attila Rees is damp.

But some of the directorial choices work against Thomas's teasing. The pastoral music early on is sickly-sweet and humourless - as if Beethoven had rewritten the theme for Woolly Valley. Because the pace is clipped - at a long two hours plus interval, it needs to be - some of the double entendres ("the jollyrodgered sea") get lost in the rush. (Would it be sacrilege to trim Thomas? Or do we only do that to middling playwrights, like Shakespeare?)

Suitably dressed in blue-striped pyjamas, Masterson at 55 has the bull neck, stubbled head and wide face of a rugby forward - an incongruous sight as he skips about playing the children's games. His interpretations, in a clear, lightly raspy corduroy voice, oscillate between clever and glib.

The pace slows as he fully embodies a pipe-sucking fisherman in a wonderful moment. But when his women are not martinets, they are mincers all similarly flouncing about, limp-wristed. The exception is Polly Garter who keeps producing babies and whose overly-romantic backstory Masterson sings beautifully while scrubbing the floor.

The scrubbing and the song are a typical Thomasine mix of passion and prose, a mix elsewhere used to amuse: "I will warm your sheets like an electric toaster," Mr Mog Edwards tells Miss Myfanwy Price, in a dream. Like the show: cosy.

Reviewed by Janet McAllister

- NZ Herald

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