The Merchant of Venice

York Theatre, Seymour Centre, May 23

John Turnbull as Shylock.

John Turnbull as Shylock.

The Merchant of Venice is one of Shakespeare’s problematic plays. It’s technically a comedy but it contains some decidedly dark elements, particularly its uncomfortable anti-Semitism.

Richard Cottrell’s production for Sport for Jove doesn’t bring a strong director’s “take” to bear on the play and isn’t revelatory in the way that the best Sport for Jove productions have been.

Its strength is the great clarity of the storytelling, with a keen focus on the text. Energetically and warmly performed, it’s a solid, enjoyable production with the comedy to the fore.

Anna Gardiner’s art deco set with a translucent screen wall and doors at the back and a parquet floor (by Lucilla Smith) locates it during the 1920s or 1930s: an era close enough to our own to feel contemporary but pre-dating World War II and the horrors of the holocaust. (A final image of Shylock’s daughter Jessica, left alone on stage as dark looks are thrown at her, is a nod to what is to come).

The production opens with a burst of We’re in the Money from the musical 42nd Street, which is set in the 1930s during the Great Depression. Beyond that, however, the choice of era seems mainly an aesthetic one, and even that becomes rather lost as the production unfolds.

The costuming doesn’t locate things specifically in the 1930s, the music moves from jazz age to classical, and overall there’s not a strong sense of time or place.

Writing in the program, Cottrell argues that though race is a factor, “the play is about money rather than money lending”.

“Antonio and Shylock represent the getting and spending of money. The relationship between them is not about a Jew and Gentile but about two men who hate each other,” he says.

Portia, meanwhile, is exceptionally wealthy – the main reason Bassanio, who is broke and needs to make a good marriage, was initially attracted to her.

Lizzie Schebesta as Portia.

Lizzie Schebesta as Portia.

It’s true that in the play money makes the world go around, but it doesn’t register here as a touchstone or a key, overarching theme.

Instead, the production foregrounds the comedy and fun, tripping along lightly for much of the evening and generating plenty of laughter on opening night. Occasionally it is almost taken too far. Aaron Tsindos gives such a broadly comic, boomingly voiced portrayal of the Prince of Morocco that it feels dangerously close to racial caricature in a play where race is an unavoidable issue. That said, the audience lapped it up and roared with laughter.

But there’s no getting away from the prejudice at the centre of the play. We hear how Shylock has been called a dog and spat on; we understand why he wants revenge through his pound of flesh yet we shudder at what he is prepared to do, and at his ruthless refusal of mercy.

At the same time, when the judge rules against Shylock and he is ordered to renounce his Judaism it’s a deeply uncomfortable moment, with Gratiano’s boorish jubilation an ugly sight.

As Shakespeare shows, and as we well know, prejudice brings out the worst in people – both those doling it out and those on the receiving end. It’s something we are wrestling with here and now in Australia.

John Turnbull is terrific as Shylock, portraying him as a smart, dignified businessman who has been insulted once too often.

It’s not an unsympathetic portrayal – we see clearly why he behaves as he does – but nor is it an overly sympathetic one. The sight of him sharpening his knife on his shoe, while Antonio removes his shirt, is chilling. His steadfast refusal to grant mercy when the money he is owed and more is offered to him is done with a coldness as steely as his knife. And when he realises his daughter Jessica has left him, he seems only concerned about the money and jewels she has taken with her.

Turnbull keeps all this in balance in a powerful performance.

Lizzie Schebesta invests Portia with a playful intelligence, James Lugton plays Antonio with a mournful sincerity and Chris Stalley makes a dashing Bassanio.

There are strong performances from the rest of the cast, which includes Damien Strouthos as an exuberant Gratiano, Erica Lovell as Portia’s maid Nerissa, Jonathan Elsom as the comical, blind Old Gobbo and Lucy Heffernan as Jessica, along with Darcy Brown, Lucy Heffernan, Jason Kos, Michael Cullen and Pip Dracakis.

There are a few odd touches in the production, such as why does Jessica start out with auburn hair then suddenly appear in a blonde wig? Is she trying to disguise her Jewish heritage and look more like a Gentile or is it part of the spending spree Jessica and Lorenzo go on? I wasn’t sure.

All in all, it may not be the most memorable production of the play but it’s enjoyable, entertaining and well-staged, allowing the play to speak clearly.

The Merchant of Venice plays at the Seymour Centre until May 30. Bookings: www.seymourcentre.com or 02 9351 7940

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