REVIEW: Shylock and Under Milk Wood (Auckland Live)

Review by James Wenley

Performed by Guy Masterson

[Guy Masterson Presents]

The last time Guy Masterson visited Auckland’s Herald Theatre with his solo version of Under Milk Wood, he helped inspire a future classic of New Zealand Drama. A young Toa Fraser had been working on a Fijian story, but after watching Masterson, went in a very different direction. One chair. One actor. Multiple characters. No 2 was born (and Masterson would go on to produce No 2 at the Edinburgh Fringe).

It was with this very cool serendipitous footnote in New Zealand theatre history in the back of my mind that I went to Masterson’s performances of Under Milk Wood and Shylock, alternating this week at the Herald.

In Under Milk Wood Masterson faithfully performs the Dylan Thomas’ day of the life in a small Welsh community, made famous by the 1954 Richard Burton-led broadcast. While it most usually performed for large casts, Masterson gives himself the challenge of inhabiting all 69 characters.

Shylock presents a different challenge: to take on one of the most iconic and fretted about characters in the Shakespeare canon. This is side-stepped somewhat in Gareth Armstrong’s text by having Masterson playing an actor playing Tubal, a minor character in The Merchant of Venice, and only catching Shylock himself in glimpses.

Masterson is a twinkle-eyed jolly type, who at one moment can be leaping around the stage like a 4-year-old on Christmas eve, and in another summoning incredible pathos as Shylock meets his accusers. He has the easy-listening British stage voice, sucking on the words like treacle. He’s been doing Under Milk Wood for years, and it is clear that that text especially is part of his bones.

Masterson’s casts his magic immediately in Under Milk Wood, as we, the only ones with our eyes unclosed, are led through the dreams of the town’s inhabitants. The long-standing problem with this text for the stage is that is inherently an undramatic piece – there is bugger all conflict or growth, and nothing is different by the end of the day. Making it a solo helps to keep these flashes of lives engaging, as we admire the fluency of his expression. The perfectly evoked music by Matt Clifford also nudges it along. It can be easy to get lost in the wash of the characters, but easy enough to find one’s way back. Though it helped orientate the audience, physically there was too much recourse to literal pantomime, and I began to long for some more surprising choices. Overall, it is a fitting vehicle to appreciate Thomas’s craft.

While Under Milk Wood is a gently lulling, meditative experience, Shylock makes for a dramatically gripping one. There’s a whole subset of the Shakespeare industry dedicated to shows from the point of view of minor characters (most famously Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, and Tim Crouch came here last year with I, Peaseblossom), and Shylock is a worthy contribution. Tubal, as he continues to remind us, has only seven lines in the play. Reading the scene, he’s a purely functional messenger role, easy to overlook.

But never again. As he tells us, he’s the only other Jewish character to appear in all of Shakespeare. Armstrong and Masterson use the character, and his perspective of the play (insisting that the stage directions are inaccurate, and Tubal would have appeared throughout) to deep dive into representations of Jews throughout literature (from the Holy Bible to Marlowe’s Jew of Malta, and the reminder that Shylock would have originally been played with a prop nose and ginger wig), as well as history (a proclamation banning Jews from England meant Shakespeare was unlikely ever to have met a Jew). His major textual insight: Shylock’s demand for a pound of flesh began as a joke. All of this you could get on a University level course studying The Merchant of Venice, but not with the charm that Masterson brings to the performance.

At the end of the play he drops most of his commentary, letting Shakespeare’s famous court scene speak for itself. While he could have gone on to discuss the problematic ways we still wrestle with this character in contemporary Shakespeare discourse and productions, he intentionally goes back to the text and casts the audience as jury. As put to us in the program – is he villain, victim, or something more intriguing?

Who knows if Masterson’s work will inspire any local theatre-makers during this trip. Certainly, neither show this time round has that much novelty, we’re positively spoiled for choice with the shows that come here – and are made by our own practitioners. But if you’re a Shakespeare or Dylan Thomas nut, these are essential viewings.

Shylock and Under Milk Wood are presented by Auckland Live and Theatre Tours international and play at The Herald until 22 Oct. 

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