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

The veteran Game of Thrones star talks villainy and fear with Time Out

From playing Bond villain Elliot 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 an art student who needed an elective and heard that drama was the easiest, but he ended up 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 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.'

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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.'

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 is cagey about this 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.'

Pryce often plays controversial characters that find faith intertwined with power, be it loss or gain. In 2015, he played Thomas Wolsey in 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 the 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.'

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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] 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.'

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.

Did you know...
Now seen mostly on university stages, The Merchant of Venice has a distinguished history in China, being the first professional Shakespeare performance (1913), the first performance based on a full translation (1930), and the first Chinese Shakespeare done in Beijing after the Cultural Revolution (1980). The independent and clever Portia embodied the emerging modern Chinese women, while fairy tale elements such as the pound of flesh and the three caskets enchanted the audience – and of course, vicious moneylenders were everywhere. Normally the anti-Semitic elements are underplayed, not for sensitivity’s sake but because it was assumed the cultural connection would be lost. The Globe’s version should offer a whole new take on a semi-Chinese classic.

The history of The Globe


Originally built in 1599, The Globe Theatre caught fire during a 1613 production of Henry VIII, when a misfired cannon set the thatched roof alight. It was rebuilt the following year, only to be destroyed again 30 years later, when the Puritans deemed all theatre immoral entertainment. The once-glorious spot stayed empty until American actor and director Sam Wanamaker made a pilgrimage to Shakespeare’s playhouse and found nothing but a plaque.

Wanamaker relocated to the UK, where, in 1969, he launched his own campaign to rebuild Shakespeare’s Globe. He faced funding shortages, apathy and outright ridicule for decades, but in 1991, construction on the new Shakespeare’s Globe began. Why the resistance? 'Everyone was convinced it would be twee, that it would be some Disneyfied experience, that there would be no credibility,' says Neil Constable, executive director of today’s Globe. 'But when artistic director Mark Rylance brought the tradition of original practice, the naysayers saw how valuable a resource this was. It always takes an outsider to tell you what you need. Sadly, Wanamaker never got to see it.'

Wanamaker died in 1993, having seen only a rehearsal performance on a temporary stage. But he would have been pleased with the result. Theatregoers still sit on wooden benches only partly protected by the elements, and the 'groundlings' still stand open air and elbow-to-elbow in the ‘pit’. ‘At five pounds a ticket,’ says Constable, ‘it’s the cheapest date night in London.’

As far as the Globe’s future in China, the theatre is setting up a Shakespeare education centre, and hopes to have regular tours to both first- and second-tier cities – because everyone should experience the Bard. 'Shakespeare [allows] people to reflect and understand who and what they are in the world,' says Constable. 'He writes about all walks of life and all classes, so that everyone can find a character that represents them. Shakespeare is a passport to life.'
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