Jonathan Pryce: 'The audience can decide if this is as bad as watching a Trump rally'

The Game of Thrones star chats ahead of his role in The Merchant of Venice

Photos by Marc Brenner
From playing Bond villain Eliot Carver and Game of Thrones’ High Sparrow, to his current Shylock in the Globe Theatre’s The Merchant of Venice, Jonathan Pryce’s dramatic instincts and panoramic range have been the envy of the industry – but it was well-timed compliments that actually launched his career. Pryce was a teenage art student who needed an elective and heard that drama was the easiest, but he was enjoying acting more than painting. ‘As much as I thought my drawings and paintings were good, no one was telling me how good they were,’ he recalls. ‘But people were telling me to be an actor. It’s an odd thing to say, but it was about getting praise.’

Oddly, for someone whose Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts tutor once told him that he’d never play anything but villains in British police drama Z Cars, Pryce defies categorisation. (His advice for someone with a discouraging teacher? ‘Change the teacher!’) He got his start at Liverpool’s Everyman Theatre and found that as ‘players cast’ they were doing a show a month – whatever part was assigned. Pryce remembers playing Owl from Winnie the Pooh and Edgar from King Lear on the same day. ‘It builds your confidence, so you’re not afraid of tackling anything,’ he says. ‘I used to be able to dance; I can sing and act, and I like the variety,’ he says. ‘If I do one kind of role in a film, I deliberately look for another kind.’ This extends even to projects that have been written specifically for him. ‘That’s that writer’s view of what I can do,’ he says. ‘I wouldn’t necessarily find that interesting.’

Even so, he initially turned down a role on Game of Thrones, saying that the genre didn’t appeal to him, but when they returned five seasons later with a fascinating character in an international cultural sensation, he took the job – based partly on advice from an early agent delivered 40 years ago. ‘He said that if the part isn’t the lead character, does this character come into the situation and change it? Which is what the High Sparrow does; that storyline could not have existed without him.’ As for the sixth season ender – warning: spoiler alert – Pryce says he ‘would have liked to have done a John Snow and have come back for the seventh season, [but] that didn’t happen, sadly.’ Then he adds, ‘But who knows with Game of Thrones?’

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Game of Thrones’ flexible scheduling meant he could take on Shylock at the Globe’s 2015 Merchant production – although he initially turned this down as well. ‘I shared the conviction with millions of people that Merchant is a racist play, rather than a play about racism,’ he says. ‘But reading it from Shylock’s point of view, and with today’s rise of racism, of anti-Semitism, of fear of the immigrant and the alien, of putting up walls instead of knocking them down, it’s proven to be an incredibly relevant piece,’ he continues. ‘I wouldn’t be doing it if I thought it was in any way racist, or if it didn’t help the political situation.’

Neil Constable, the Globe’s executive director, agrees that Merchant is the right play at the right, if turbulent, time. ‘Religious intolerance around the world is seen on a daily basis, so doing a Merchant revival felt appropriate,’ he says. ‘It has anti-Semitic themes, but it’s not an anti-Semitic play, especially in the way it’s played,’ he continues, adding that this version has a surprise ending (Pryce was cagey too). ‘[Audiences] did have this wonderful connection to these words from 400 years ago. Shakespeare would not have dreamt that his plays would have had such resonance today.’

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Pryce often plays controversial characters that find faith intertwined with power, be it loss or gain. In 2015, he played Thomas Wolsey in the BBC’s Wolf Hall. ‘As a member of the church hierarchy, he was very wealthy; his palace was bigger than the king’s. For Wolsey and people like him, it was all about power.’ He also feels that High Sparrow was misguided rather than megalomaniacal. ‘He was motivated by faith, whatever the hell that faith was, but he uses his power in a dangerous way,’ he says. ‘That mix of power, fundamentalism and zealotry is a dangerous and unattractive one; he is divisive and homophobic, not a great person,’ he continues. ‘Shylock is a victim of people like him.’

According to Pryce, director Jonathan Munby brought Shylock’s decades of abuse and discrimination centre stage. ‘A lot of people are seeing Merchant for the first time, and they’re coming with their own prejudices,’ he says, adding that the Globe’s traditional interpretation (except for the secret ending) forces audiences to draw their own conclusions to make it relevant. ‘You don’t want to pander, because the audience isn’t dumb,’ he continues. ‘They can decide [whether they want] to go deeper into the production, or to say this is as bad as watching a Trump rally.’

But audiences – in their way – have responded. Pryce mentioned that during one Globe performance, the scene depicting Shylock’s forced conversion to Christianity drew cheers from the crowd. ‘We found out later they were a group of American evangelicals,’ he says. ‘For them, this wasn’t punishment, this was salvation, but to Shylock, it is devastating,’ says Pryce. ‘It means the loss of his faith and his family.’ But Constable remembers a very different audience, who might have understood this better. ‘[There were] a bunch of schoolgirls in hijabs in the groundlings (standees), shouting “Shame on you” when Shylock renounces his religion,’ he says.‘Shakespeare wanted people to reflect and comment on these plays.’

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Munby’s interpretation focuses on Shylock’s ‘Christian’ treatment as the core of his all-consuming need for vengeance. He also emphasises a relationship many overlook – since brainy beauty Portia steals the show – that of Shylock and his daughter. Here, Jessica is played by Phoebe Pryce, Jonathan’s actual daughter, although he insists that The Globe approached her first (‘and she’s very good!’). Jessica eventually elopes with a Christian, stealing her father’s money, and worse, a ring her deceased mother gave to Shylock before their marriage. ‘[Munby] saw this as vital to Shylock’s situation, the strong relationship they had, and why it was devastating when she left,’ says Pryce, who adds that Shylock is depicted as a domestic tyrant. ‘The abused Shylock becomes the abuser at home, at least verbally, and he places terrible restrictions on her,’ he says. ‘It’s all about how he became the person he is, and his desire for revenge.’ In light of today’s prejudice and persecution, hopefully this lesson sticks.

The Merchant of Venice is at Shanghai Oriental Art Centre from Thursday 22-Sunday 25 at 2pm and 7.15pm. Tickets are 280-1,080RMB with Time Out Tickets.