Patrick Stewart told me playing Shylock was different, that it wasn’t like any other role. And since this may be the only time in my life I’ll get to use the phrase “Patrick Stewart told me” – and to drop his name to help raise money for an amazing cause – I have to share this… A few nights ago I celebrated the Bard’s birthday by participating in a 24 Hour Shakespeare Marathon to help raise money for The Vancouver Children’s Hospital. Since I’d written a play called Shylock about a Jewish actor accused of anti-Semitism for his portrayal of Shakespeare’s infamous Jew I was invited to throw my Kippah in the ring for the role of everyone’s favourite moneylender. It was a script-in-hand staged reading of an abridged version of The Merchant of Venice with actors I’d never met, never rehearsed with. It was a fun performance for a good cause until I delivered Shylock’s line asking why he should loan money to the merchant who’d always shunned him. “’Fair sir, you spit on me on Wednesday last. You spurn’d me such a day. Another time you call’d me dog. And for these courtesies I’ll lend you thus much moneys?” Antonio replied: “I am as like to call thee so again, to spit on thee again, to spurn thee too.” And before he’d finished his lines… I hated him. Hate isn’t a word I use lightly. My response was so strong, so visceral that in that moment I couldn’t have told you if I hated the character or the actor. I responded with Shakespeare’s lines but the words going through my head were “fuck you.” Later, when Portia delivered her beautiful oft-quoted speech about “the quality of mercy” while preparing to show none to Shylock because he was an “alien” I hated her too. And I understood why, when Laurence Olivier walked off-stage as Shylock, he let loose the piercing scream of a man who’d lost everything. When the show was over I didn’t want to hold hands with anyone for the curtain call. Part of me was still angry about what they’d done to Shylock, part of me was thinking about what it meant to be a Jew when it wasn’t just a religion but a dirty word. And as I left the stage I remembered my conversation with Patrick Stewart. When my play Shylock premiered at Vancouver’s Bard on the Beach in 1996 with David Berner as the leading man Stewart (then best known as Star Trek: The Next Generation’s Jean Luc Picard, now best known as Professor X and/or the funniest man on the internet) was at the show. Afterwards, I asked Stewart what it was like to play Shylock – a role he was famous for in the theatre-world long before he had made it so on TV, a role he’d written his own one-man play about. Stewart said that when he played Shylock he didn’t eat with the other actors, didn’t hang out with them off-stage. It wasn’t a conscious choice, it just happened. Stewart said he was so surprised by the strange dynamics with his fellow cast members that he talked to other actors who’d played Shylock and they’d had similar experiences. Playing the outcast, the alien, the despised Jew, created the sense that Stewart was the outsider — and not only did he feel that alienation, so did other cast members, his colleagues, his friends. I was shocked to discover it only took a brief onstage exchange for me to feel the same way. I’ve heard that the superstitions around Shakespeare’s “cursed” Scottish play come from the belief that the three witches recite a real spell, an incantation the Bard found in a book of magic. I wonder if Merchant of Venice has its own supernatural power because it evokes and invokes how racism breeds racism, how hate inspires hate.
The last time I checked the site The 24 Hour Shakespeare Marathon had raised over $10,000 for the BC Children’s Hospital Foundation. The event was produced by John Emmet Tracy and Alia Tracy to thank the hospital for the help their son received several years ago. Approximately 200 actors appeared onstage to help the cause. For more information or to contribute anything other than a pound of flesh click here: