THE REHABILITATION of the most famous Jew in theatre, from a hook-nosed caricature of greed and resentment to a justifiably bitter and persecuted ethnic minority, didn't just come about with the development of literature's conscience. That's the way we'd like to think that Shylock has been reconsidered since his debut nearly 400 years ago, but as Gareth Armstrong's irresistible dramatic monologue points out, the inception of Shelach (Shylock is an anglicisation, we discover) as a stage character and his passage through literary history inevitably reflect the changing fortunes of the Jews.
It's a witty, if poignant, pun on the consistently marginal status of Jewish culture that the monologue is delivered by Tubal, Shylock's only and oft-forgotten ally in The Merchant of Venice, and indeed the only other Jewish character in Shakespeare. Given centre stage, the bit-part Tubal is invested with tremendous comic energy by Armstrong ( a regular on BBC radio drama). In fact, as he rummages through the history of the play (the 18th-century Irish actor, Charlie Macklin's Shylock was for 40 years a phenomenon of the English stage) Tubal makes into a virtue William Prynne's puritanical comment along the lines that Jews were like actors in their ability to dissemble their faith.
Armstrong balances Tubal's comic asides with contextual nuggets that enrich your understanding of Shylock and his cultural importance as a measure of anti-Semitism. For instance, Shakespeare, officially at least, would not have known any Jews, the community having been expelled from England in 1190.
Armstrong's tour de force is bursting with footnotes like these. By the time he concludes his enactment of the key scenes in The Merchant, Shylock's most famous demand seems like a piffling request.
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