Thursday, November 30, 2017

The Merchant of Venice

Photo by Prudence Upton

Bell Shakespeare present THE MERCHANT OF VENICE, by William Shakespeare, in the Playhouse Theatre, at the Sydney Opera House. Until 26 November.

I went to see this Bell Shakespeare production of THE MERCHANT OF VENICE, Directed by Anne-Louise Sarks, on the favourable 'word-of-mouth' I had, mostly, received from friends, who, like me, had had a very dispiriting experience with their production of OTHELLO***, last year, and, of course, because of my continuing interest in this very vexing play.


Says Norrie Epstein in his book THE FRIENDLY SHAKESPEARE:
THE MERCHANT OF VENICE  is a troubling play. At the end, you may not know whether you've seen a tragedy or a comedy, a love story or a tale of hate. In its infinite ambiguity, it is quintessential Shakespeare. No sooner have you reached one conclusion about the play than it's immediately contradicted in the next scene - or line. (1)

Ostensibly, THE MERCHANT OF VENICE is the story of the friendship of an unselfish Venetian merchant (Antonio) for a charming young gentleman (Bassiano) who is in love with a beautiful heiress (Portia); of the noble sacrifice that the friend is on the point of making when nearly brought to disaster by a vile Jew (Shylock); of the transformation of the lovely lady (Portia) into lawyer and logician (Balthazar) just in the nick of time and her administration to the villain of a dose of his own medicine. (2)
THE MERCHANT OF VENICE is traditionally situated as a Romantic Comedy in the Shakespearean canon, but it is the tragedy of the sub-plot of Shylock (Mitchell Butel), the Jewish money usurer, that dominates the proceedings in most contemporary productions. And yet Shylock appears in only five of the twenty scenes of the play.

Anne-Louis Sarks has edited, slimmed the play down - for a cast of ten - (and startlingly re-written, especially, provocatively, the ending!!!), and in that process has emphasised the anti-semiticism of the Christian characters. Certainly, in this production, the anti-semitic prejudice of Antonio (Jo Turner) and the supporting behaviour from his 'bro' follow-the-leader gang: Bassanio (Damien Strouthos), Gratiano (Anthony Taufa) and even Lorenzo (Shiv Palekar) is featured in forward and underlined energy and, too, after the thwarting of the pound of flesh contract, the ruthless pursuit of Portia as the lawyer, Balthazar, in the legal destruction of Shylock, contradicting her (Christian) avocation of the value of mercy, but a few minutes before, is revealed as a devastatingly cruel and forensic reading of the Law:
Tarry , Jew;
The law hath yet another hold on you.
It is enacted in the laws of Venice,-
If it be prov'd against an alien,
That by direct or indirect attempts
He seek the life of any citizen,
The party against the which he doth contrive
Shall seize one half of his goods; the other half
Comes to the privy coffer of the state;
And the offender's life lies in the mercy
Of the duke only, 'gainst all other voice.
In which predicament, I say, thou stand'st;
For it appears by manifest proceeding,
That indirectly, and directly too,
Thou has contrived against the very life
Of the defendant; and thou has incurr'd
The danger formerly by me rehearsed.
Down, therefore, and beg mercy of the duke.
Which allows the revengeful Merchant Antonio to obliterate the human, Shylock, further:
So please my lord the Duke, and all the court,
To quit the fine for one half of his goods;
I am content, so he will let me have
The other half in use, to render it,
Upon his death, unto the gentleman
That lately stole his daughter:
Two things provided more, - that for this favour,
He presently become a Christian;
The other, that he do record a gift,
Here in the court, of all he dies possess'd
Upon his son Lorenzo and his daughter.
In this production he is humiliatingly stripped by the 'gang' of merchants of his tzizit and yarmulke.

"Anti-semitism can take many forms - from a mocking, contemptuous ill-will, to murderous pogroms. [... ] Anti-semitism can be met with in the market and in the Presidium of the Academy of Sciences, in the soul of an old man and in the games children play in the yard. Anti-semitism has been as strong in the age of atomic reactors and computers as in the age of oil-lamps, sailing boats and spinning wheels." (3).

This faith, the Christian faith, lately, in the time of Queen Elizabeth I and Shakespeare, divided into the Protestant and Roman Catholic conduits, had become a weapon for secular power, and despite preaching peace (and mercy) was violent, ruthless and intolerant to all who deviated from that 'one true faith'. And, once it had attained the status of the religion of State - empire - did, with its zealous 'priests' and congregation, set about to destroy all others. This was even more powerfully strengthened by Shakespeare in THE MERCHANT OF VENICE by choosing the Jewish faith to attack as it was infamously paralleled with the successful skills of that part of that community in the money lending world - a success that evoked much envy and suspicion.

Inside this Romantic Comedy of THE MERCHANT OF VENICE, which is essentially about money - the borrowing and lending of ducats and the fortune of a rich heiress, Portia's - the doctrines and practice of the Jewish faith are pitted against those of the Christian faith (and since it is set in Venice is it the Catholic Christian faith?), and Ms Sarks seems to be taking a very decided show in sorting Shakespeare's intentions.

In the program notes we are told:
Religious tensions were high, and Jewish people were openly persecuted. One grievance the Christians felt most egregiously was the Jewish practice of Usury - the lending of money for interest - which was forbidden under Christian doctrine, and viewed by them as morally wrong. In 1578 Phillip Caesar lablelled Usurers thusly: "thei are likened to poysoned serpentes, to mad Dogges, to greedie Wormes, to Wolues, Beares, and to other rauening beasts." It is through this lens that Shakespeare's Venetian Christians viewed the Jews.(...)
This heightened conceptual 'take' by Ms Sarks to the play is provocative and intriguing - a strength of interest - and it is set in a very handsome, and deceptively simple (touring) Design by Michael Hankin (another remarkable Design - what a prolifically exciting Designer he is). The production takes a kind of post-modern meta-theatre bent, in that the actors are all present on the stage throughout the performance, even unto the dressing and undressing for their very many changes, in modern dress - we are definitely in a theatre.

I think what any production of any play requires to be successful is 1. the telling of a story with  2. recognisable (not just relatable) characters with a clear, and 3. in the case of Shakespeare especially, a love of words, of language.

By the time I saw the production, which was in the last week of a very long tour, what we were given, in the Playhouse, was a clear storyline but with characters that were mostly driven by function rather than flesh and blood dimensions; by characters of a modern 'hipster' sensibility of humour and meanness, both in the world of Venice and the spoilt space of inherited money in Belmont; with, in this production, an emphatic use of actor ownership through 'personalisation' i.e. the drawing of the characters from a heightened exposure of the personalities of the actors (the work of Jacob Warner, as Launcelot, for instance, mostly deliberate watch-me-be-funny-now-acting, and as clever as it may have been in its re-writing and improvisations etc, for myself, was undermining to the seriousness of the trajectory of the play as written). These characters definitely belonged to an accessible contemporary world, even down to the two principal female characters playing in bare-feet with bodies that seemed to be responding to the events of the play simply as themselves with little to no transfer and imaginative development of a 'script extraction' and 'research observation' of the status/ clues of these people in Shakespeare's world when adapted to this modern world.

Damien Strouthos, as Bassanio, seemed to straddle the double demand of the 'modern' Director's need and the original Writer's intent most consistently, with Felicity McKay, in the smaller role of Jessica, fulfilling a duty to both responsibilities well. Mr Turner lacked consistent vocal/verse power, depending more on emotional colouring to reveal Antonio's predicament (with a bathetic shading of the homo-erotic attraction to Bassanio) than the use of text as argument. Mitchell Butel began brilliantly as Shylock, in the first scene physically primed and psychologically complex, promising much to come, but disintegrated to a blurring of text with excessive emotional declaration and physical reaction that distracted from the words of Shakespeare's arguments as the play journeyed on - unfortunately, signalling and overwrought pathos in the last part of the famous trial scene - showing us what to feel, rather than allowing us to endow the situation from our responses to the character and his situation. But what was more difficult (and egregious) was the throw away use of the finely wrought poetry of Shakespeare's verse by Catherine Davies, as Nerissa, and especially, by Jessica Tovey, as Portia - revealing, mostly, girls who just want to have fun, instead of two of the cleverest and sophisticated women written by Shakespeare.

For me, it was the generalised use of text, the lack of relish of the word by word construct of the language of Shakespeare's poetry, and the preference to utilise and permit, undisciplined personalised physical responses as character guides to tell this story, that undermined the power of the original play, in fact, ultimately, undermined the concept of this production.

It was, however, a better night in the theatre than the Bell OTHELLO, last year. But it is interesting to look back to the Sport For Jove production of THE MERCHANT OF VENICE as a point of comparison.


  1. THE FRIENDLY SHAKESPEARE, by Norrie Epstein. Penguin Books. 1993.
  2. THE MEANING OF SHAKESPEARE, by Harold C. Goddard. The University of Chicago Press. 1951.
  3. LIFE AND FATE - a novel, by Vasily Grossman, translated from the Russian ZHIZN I SUDA, by Robert Chandler. Vintage Books, London. 2006.

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