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Confronting privilege & prejudice: Bell Shakespeare’s ‘Merchant of Venice’

Review: The Merchant of Venice –
Bell Shakespeare –
State Theatre Centre of WA –
9 August –
Reviewed by Xan Ashbury

Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate and hate leads to suffering. Oh, and money can’t buy you love. For anyone more familiar with Star Wars and the Beatles than the Bard, there are your takeaway messages from The Merchant of Venice.

While the play starts with the words “In sooth”, no one prances around in tights. The men are clad in sharp suits, as are the women for a while … because what would Shakespeare be without a bit of secret gender-bending? This modern aesthetic immediately suggests this is a play for our times.

And it certainly is. The Trump administration has prised open questions that seemed long settled, including the acceptability of open discrimination against minority groups. Here at home, we are still struggling to rid our country of racism, xenophobia and homophobia. Under the direction of Anne-Louise Sarks, whose recent credits include Jasper Jones, the play felt fresh, subversive, accessible and rich with contemporary resonance.

Antonio (the affluent Christian merchant, of the play’s title) is a forlorn character, outfitted in this production in a beautifully tailored puce jacket. “In sooth I know not why I am so sad,” he declares. While he is financially secure, he is unfulfilled. The world is “a stage where every man must play a part, and mine a sad one”. Because it’s a Shakespearean comedy, we know it’s going to end in a wedding. Or, in this case, three. But where is Antonio (Jo Turner), during this otherwise joyous scene? Watching from the sidelines, excluded and miserable.

Fayssal Bazzi (Gratiano) and Damien Strouthos (Bassanio). Photo: Prudence Upton

Shakespeare’s text offers numerous clues that Antonio’s love for his bestie, Bassiano, has a homoerotic dimension. While that interpretation is often overlooked or underplayed on stage, it is central to Antonio’s characterisation in this production.

The plot is set in motion when Antonio offers to lend money to Bassanio (Damien Strouthos) so that he can woo the wealthy Portia (Jessica Tovey). Although he owns a fleet of ships, Antonio has cash-flow problem and instead seeks to borrow the money from a Jewish moneylender, Shylock. The men are sworn enemies. Antonio hates Shylock because of his religion and profession; Shylock has had a gutful of Antonio’s bigotry and insults. Shylock agrees to lend the money at no interest but there’s a catch: if Antonio defaults on the loan, it will cost him a pound of his flesh.

There is no dodging the fact that this play has a sinister history. Its characters express deeply anti-semitic views and traditionally Shylock was portrayed as a greedy, bloodthirsty villain. The play was even used as Nazi propaganda in the 1940s.

How is it possible to stage a comedy, steeped in anti-semitism, without it feeling like anything other than a dance upon the graves of millions of Jews? I admit I had my reservations before seeing the play, despite being a fan of Bell Shakespeare’s work.

First, however, Mitchell Butel’s nuanced rendering of the Shylock is masterful. Inevitably, the representation contains some stereotypical elements but Butel creates an air of dignity and authenticity. His delivery of Shylock’s “Hath not a Jew eyes?” speech was breathtaking. “If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh?” And so he goes on, reminding Antonio of their shared humanity. But he’s had enough of being spat upon and treated like a dog. “The villainy you teach me I will execute – and I shall go hard but I will better the instruction.” The speech challenges the audience to confront their prejudices, check their privilege and realise that hate begets hate.

Although Portia’s quick thinking and trickery succeeds in saving Antonio’s life, it is a somewhat hollow victory. The scene in which Shylock is forcibly stripped of his prayer shawl and kippah, after losing his daughter and fortune, is heart-wrenching. This production points to hypocrisy on both sides and implies that adherence to ideology and religious doctrine, of any persuasion, has a dark side. In that scene I found myself thinking about other minorities who become the scapegoat; the low-hanging fruit society choses to isolate, blame or exclude.

The scene in which Shylock is forcibly stripped of his prayer shawl and kippah is heart-wrenching. Photo: Prudence Upton.

The simple yet stunning set was key to the play’s success. The action takes place in front of a vast stretch of golden fabric – a constant reminder of one of the play’s famous lines: “All that glitters is not gold.” A tree at one side of the stage, reinforces the value of life and connection. Poignant and mesmerising were the swirling leaves falling from the rafters at various points throughout the play.

In a break with convention, every actor stays on stage the whole play. Four benches form a semi circle on the stage and, instead of exiting the stage after a scene, the actors return to the bench, facing away from the audience. But – in what becomes a powerful statement about visibility – characters such as Shylock and Antonio continue to face the audience, bearing witness to what is unfolding.

This bold staging seems to represent a bigger idea: In this era of Wikileaks, omnipresent cameras and digital hyperconnection, the line between public and private discourse is blurred. There are fewer places for bigotry and intolerance to hide.

Amid these challenging themes, there were some delightfully comic moments – most of them from the incredible Jacob Warner, playing Launcelot.

Where the play began with Antonio’s melancholia, it ends with Jessica’s desperate cries of: “What have I done?” As Shylock’s daughter realises her mistakes, the audience is left to ponder the value of cultural pride and diversity.

The Merchant of Venice closes 12 August.

 

Pictured top: Mitchell Butel as Shylock and Felicity McKay as Jessica. Photo: Prudence Upton.

Photo: Prudence Upton
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