The Merchant of Venice has got to be one of the most daring plays from Shakespeare’s canon to perform. With heavy anti-Semitism underscoring the text and the potential for monetary aspirations trumping true love marks this production as a hotbed for debate. The Melbourne University Shakespeare Company (MUSC) has taken on this production as the first in their bi-annual season, and is currently one month out from their opening night on Thursday 18th April.

Director Casey Bradley also serves as the production Dramaturge, responsible for the script adaptation. Bradley describes the procedure as “a continual process of revelation. Every time I read a piece of Shakespeare’s work I discover new aspects and elements of the text, constantly reinforcing my strong belief in the absolute genius of the Bard”. As a Director, one of the many things that most appeals to Bradley about a Shakespeare play is its “consistent universality and ability to relate to audiences across time”. Bradley quotes another playwright of Shakespeare’s time, Ben Jonson, to elaborate her belief that “he was not of an age, but for all time”.

Bradley’s vision for the production is heavily based on the monetary aspects of the play, “it all comes back to money” she contends, “it is the characters occupation as Merchants, it ‘feeds fat the ancient grudge’ between Shylock and Antonio, and it could be seen as an influential factor for Lorenzo and Bassanio’s choice of wives”. Decidedly evoking a contemporary resonance, Fiona McKeon’s Set Design is very corporate and slick, suggesting a ‘Wall Street’ parallel. Bradley also explains that “there will also be subtle Film Noir undertones to help develop this sleek, glossy corporate world of the play”.

Alexander Thom who plays the title role of Antonio describes the “growing relevance and fascination of The Merchant of Venice over centuries” as a large part of what most appeals to him about the play. “I think we can all see how the themes of dodgy loans and bankruptcy have become far more relevant to far more people than Shakespeare could have ever anticipated”, he contends.

Thom describes the stages of character development and “really delving into the text, especially Shakespeare” as his “favourite part of the process”.  Antonio is perhaps the most anti-Semitic character in the entire play, and Thom describes this as the least enjoyable part of his character exploration. Bradley explains that “while the modern audience will no doubt react with varying levels of discomfort to the anti-Semitism as it isn’t something that is prevalent and of focus in our contemporary society, we must remember that in Shakespeare’s time such behaviour was considered ‘Christian’ and acceptable. In being faithful to the text, you can’t perform The Merchant of Venice sans the anti-Semitic references without it becoming a completely different play entirely”.

The nature a company like MUSC is that it is entirely run by students, creating an entirely different feel to the rehearsal and production process. Thom believes that the advantage of this forum of theatre “is that it offers a platform for university students to engage with Shakespeare. Whether that be through acting, production roles or play readings, the fact is that, as a company, it continues to grow and develop year after year as each new wave of students start to get involved in Melbourne University's wonderful theatre community”.

The Merchant of Venice will be performing from the 18th until the 27th of April, in the Guild Theatre at the University of Melbourne. Another vital brick in the history and future of student theatre, this production is certainly worth booking tickets for.

18-27th April, 2013