Composed at the end of the 16th century, William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice depicts injustices enacted towards the Jewish population of Italy by Christians, and perpetuates derogatory stereotypes of the Jewish people. When staged in a contemporary context, this invites a plethora of comparisons to be drawn between oppressors and victims the world over. Though Bell Shakespeare chose not to update the setting of the text and honoured the original script quite closely – possibly at the loss of producing a more confronting and relevant experience for audience members – their production of The Merchant of Venice is wholly commendable. Taking small liberties with the original text, trimming down passages of dialogue and combining roles to produce a tight and easily palatable interpretation of Shakespeare’s work, director Anne-Louise Sarks has crafted a piece of theatre that for this reviewer was an enjoyable introduction to the play.
Though the performances began in an exaggerated manner, as the actors relaxed into their roles and warmed up to the welcoming crowd, the fine balance of humour and tragedy portrayed began to strike a chord. As the woefully wronged Shylock, Mitchell Butel’s sincerity garnered sympathy from audience members, while Jo Turner’s portrayal of the vile Antonio was so convincing that it made me question why his faithful younger contemporaries would befriend Antonio in the first place. Comic relief from Jacob Warner as Launcelot was entertaining, but Eugene Gilfedder’s understated turn as Arragon was hilarious and brilliant. Indeed, Gilfedder’s embodiment of each character he portrayed was done so with finesse, as was the case with the versatile and charming Shiv Palekar.
In terms of design the set was confusing, but the simple and modular nature of the set pieces were undoubtedly inspired by the company’s status as one which tours widely. While the large (almost golden) metallic sheet at the rear of the stage could have been included to represent the vanity of those who vie for protagonist Portia’s affections, the connection was tenuous. The series of benches included – upon which actors who weren’t performing sat – was equally questionable from a design and directorial standpoint. Additionally, the golden leaves falling at the beginning of Act One and black leaves falling sometime after interval were a visually pleasing addition, however they were too reminiscent of Sydney Theatre Company’s War of the Roses, which featured golden confetti falling during its first act and blue and white confetti resembling snow falling after interval: marking Richard III’s winter of discontent.
Though lighting and sound were minimal (especially sound) they were utilized effectively, and the combination of the silvery white rays shining on cast members towards the end of the play accompanied by a uniquely solemn and hopeful sound design was beautifully – and necessarily – cathartic. Similarly, the costuming was approached with a preference for the effortlessly stylish, and as a Katharine Hepburn worshipper I felt Michael Hankin’s choice of gentleman’s apparel for the disguised Jessica was flawless and reminiscent of the great Kate, particularly given actress Felicity McKay’s copper locks.
As I entered the theatre to see this production I was aware of the anti-Semitic nature of the text and though this was not applied to a more harrowing context, the fact the company followed the text to the extent at which they did exposed the problematic nature of a lot of the writing. The same can be applied to the treatment of women in the play who, though far more cunning and intelligent than their male suitors and counterparts, are still subjected to being competed for and ‘won.’ An overall fine production, I would highly recommend this production for those new to Shakespeare and to younger audiences, as the work is more accessible to fresh ears than most.