Jonathan Pryce: ‘Merchant of Venice’ for Our Times

The voice on the phone is instantly familiar — a friendly, measured, reasonable, recognizable from many films in often sinister, even menacing guises and most recently on television.

The British actor — he is Welsh-born — was not in Washington to necessarily talk about his screen roles.  Jonathan Pryce had just arrived from New York and was getting ready to attend a reception at the British Embassy in his capacity of playing Shylock in the critically acclaimed Shakespeare Globe on Tour production of “The Merchant of Venice” at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater through July 30.

Still, Pryce’s playing the frightening and insidiously reasonable religious fanatic, the High Sparrow on “Games of Thrones,” has made an indelible impression on world-wide audiences.  We told Pryce that we had thought about asking if we were speaking to the High Sparrow by way of greeting, then chose not to because it had probably been done before. “Yes, it has.” he said. “Many times.”

Shylock, on the other hand, had not been done by Pryce, who has in his career as a stage actor, hit the high marks of Shakespearean roles — Macbeth, Hamlet, Lear, Richard III, as well as Petruchio.  “To be quite honest, I’ve never much like the play,” he said.  “It’s a difficult play in many ways, and it’s often seen as a comedy. So, when I was originally approached, I thought, no. But, then, I thought about it a little more and read it again.

“I see how it resonates powerfully today, and the part is very much about a person of our times, what is happening in the world and our lives,” Pryce said. “Historically, Shylock the moneylender is often seen and played as a kind of villain, bent solely on revenge.  But he is the ultimate outsider. Venice, in the 17th century, had a Jewish ghetto, and it was meant to keep people in. Jews wore yellow hats and a star as identifiers.   Today, we’re talking about walls and borders that are meant to keep people out.  Today, we’re talking about the danger of  Syrian immigrants and Romanian immigrants, and you have your own issues here.  Shylock chooses to do some things as a way to show that this is about justice and the law, that he is a human being who stands for justice and the law and that’s why he wants his pound of flesh.”

Talking with Pryce, who is 69, you get a sense of a man who has built a career with intelligence, foresight and full engagement.  For him, acting appears to be about life, not necessarily separate from it, both on a personal level and in terms of the wide world of issues and politics.

Although his film and television resume is long (60 films by his count) and varied, Pryce says, “I think I prefer the stage. With theater, I think you can pick and choose and make choices that engage you as an actor, but also as a social and political person.  When I first started in the theater, before making it to the Royal Academy of the Arts and the Royal Shakespeare Company, I was part of a theater company in Liverpool, which was very political, in a leftist way, and the plays would have political components, including Shakespeare plays.”

Pryce, being Welsh and British, is keenly aware of the changing political world, especially in England, where Brexit, the election which led to England’s upcoming departure from the European Union, shocked him.  “I fully supported remaining in the EU,” he said. “It was such a shock that it was happening at all, and we were all worried and nervous. The night before the election began, indications were that it looked as if we would stay.  But you get very involved — I didn’t want to wake up in the morning and find out, for fear that the news would be bad. So, you stayed in bed as long as you could. It was just a terrible shock, I thought I was dreaming.”

Pryce describes himself as Welsh, British, and “for now, European,” he said almost ruefully.

He has a love for and a gift for the classical. Chekhov appears on his resume a number of times, and he won an Olivier Award for his “Hamlet.” At the same time, he’s made indelible impressions on audiences by his quite varied roles in film and television.  He has worked with the eccentric, combustible Terry Gilliam on “Brazil” and the insanely expensive “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen,”  played the literary giant Lytton Strachey in “Carrington” (opposite Emma Thompson) and played three cardinals — in “Stigmata,” “The Affair of the Necklace” and Cardinal Wolsey in the sterling BBC version of the novel “Wolf Hall.”    

Pryce has been part of popular blockbuster franchises, playing Governor Weatherby Swann in the “Pirates of the Carribean” series and the U.S. president and Zartan in the “G.I. Joe” series.  He was a particularly menacing communications tycoon in the Bond movie, “Tomorrow Never Dies.”

“I’ve had a variety of projects. It’s true,” he said. “And in there, I got a little distracted by musicals.”

“I think it’s the Welsh thing,” he said. “We’re supposed to very musical.  So, yes, I can sing.”

He showed off his vocal talent when he starred on stage in the somewhat controversial “Miss Saigon,” in “Oliver” as Fagin, in “My Fair Lady” and on screen as Juan Peron with Madonna and Antonio Banderas in “Evita.”

“The Merchant of Venice,” directed by Jonathan Munby, with Rachel Pickup as Portia, is something of a family affair for Pryce. His daughter Phoebe plays Shylock’s daughter Jessica, who wounds him deeply.

“There is a great deal of satisfaction in this,” he said. “Of course, I am very proud of her, but on stage, we are the parts we play — and she is Jessica, this daughter, not Phoebe.  The choice of Phoebe was not mine to approve.  They did ask her, and she said it was fine, that there weren’t that many scenes together.”

“You know, I did this before when I was in Edward Albee’s “Sylvia,” opposite my wife, who played my wife.”  “Sylvia” is about a man who falls in love with a goat.  “It’s such a challenge, a strange thing, when you are in a play where you hurt people you adore in real life,” Pryce said.

Pryce and his wife Kate Fahy recently married after more than 43 years of living together and three children.  “I think it seems to be working,” he said. “We’ve been married a year. I will say that my wife, who is not much for jewelry, seems to like wearing the ring.”

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