Warren Kimmel takes on a difficult character
> BY ALEXANDER VARTY
Shylock, in William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, is not a part that Warren Kimmel feels he was born to play. But he is playing it, in Bard on the Beach’s production of the centuries-old classic, and the task has brought with it unexpected pains and also unexpected pleasures.
“I’ve never done Shylock, and it wasn’t one of the roles where I thought, ‘Oh, I’d love to do that,’ ” the South African–born actor reports, checking in with the Straight during a rehearsal break at the BMO Theatre Centre. “But I am Jewish, and I’m of a certain age now, so it seemed to make sense… I must say that I probably tortured myself about how to do it more than any other thing I’ve done, just because it’s so well-known—and it’s a difficult play, quite anti-semitic, and you’ve got to decide what you’re going to do with that.”
Most actors, he adds, would be inclined to soft-pedal Shakespeare’s Elizabethan bigotry by playing the titular antihero as a sympathetic figure, one cursed not by his own pride and avarice but by the social mores of the Bard’s day. That’s not Kimmel’s tack, however, and in that he’s aided by a local playwright’s astute analysis—but also burdened by the double workload of being in two plays at once.
In The Merchant of Venice, he’s playing Shylock, but in Vancouver author Mark Leiren-young’s 1996 one-hander, Shylock, he’s playing an actor who’s playing Shylock in a production of Shakespeare’s controversial classic. Both plays are running concurrently at Bard on the Beach. Still with us?
The circular logic of this arrangement is undeniable. For one thing, no matter where he’s at in his working day, Kimmel’s going to be in character. And for another, he appreciates the challenge—although it has some side effects.
“To do this monologue is insane,” he says, referring to Shylock. “Like, you kind of go, ‘Oh, that would be so wonderful,’ and as with any audition you think, ‘Oh, I’d be perfect for that part.’ And then you actually do it, and you think, ‘Oh my god, I’m useless. I don’t know how to do this! What the hell am I going to do?’ And this is very much that. It’s 80 minutes of just me, talking.…so I’ve had a week and a bit to learn it, and I feel like I’m back in drama school, where you might be doing three, four, five, or six plays at a time.”
Aiding the process is that Kimmel finds Leiren-young’s writing both elegant and thought-provoking. “He’s really come at it from all sorts of different angles. And I think that, as with any good writing—and it is good writing—it seems to be applicable to now.
“Prejudice, and the love of money and power: all these things are so topical now. The idea of whether we should tear down statues because of what they represent or whether that’s erasing history and shouldn’t be done: that’s what the play’s about. Should we stop doing The Merchant of Venice because it’s a hateful piece, or do you do it specifically because it is a hateful piece?”
For now, Kimmel’s in the latter camp—and he’s found an ally in Leiren-young.
“The thrust of the play Shylock is that the role was written by Shakespeare in the same way that he wrote Richard III as a villain, and Iago as a villain,” the actor argues. “And just because you don’t like the fact that people used to be anti-semitic doesn’t mean that you should play him the opposite way to how he was written. He’s a villain, so make him a really good villain! And I would not have done that without this other role.”