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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Henry V

Playhouse Theatre, Sydney Opera House, October 23

The cast of Henry V. Photo: Michele Mossop

The cast of Henry V. Photo: Michele Mossop

It is 1940. The date is clearly written on the blackboard in a basement room of a London school where a cardigan-wearing teacher (Keith Agius), some of his pupils and the school nurse (Danielle King) take shelter as German bombs rain down outside.

To distract the students from the air raid, the teacher hands out play scripts and an improvised performance takes place. Brief scenes from Richard II and Henry IV Parts 1 and 2 act as a prologue and then we are into Henry V, a play about war.

It’s an inspired device by director Damien Ryan, which doesn’t just frame Shakespeare’s play but runs parallel throughout the multi-layered production. We never forget that this is Henry V as performed by terrified young people during wartime.

Now and again the stories intersect in moments of enormous power – one of them deeply shocking, another incredibly poignant.

Directing for Bell Shakespeare, Ryan proves yet again what an exciting director of Shakespeare he is. Henry V is a dense play yet he brings a customary clarity, energy and modern edge to it.

Ryan was inspired by real life accounts he read of a Boy’s Club, which put on plays and cabarets to raise the spirits of people in London air raid shelters during the Blitz.

The terrific set by Anna Gardiner gives the cast bookcases, books, blankets, a bucket, newspaper crowns and armour, among various other props, which they use with thrilling invention.

The cast of Henry V. Photo: Michele Mossop

The cast of Henry V. Photo: Michele Mossop

In a play in which Shakespeare calls for the audience to use their imagination on an empty stage, Ryan gets us to do the same but with a plethora of props. Full of surprises, the staging is quite brilliant. It looks improvised, with the actors moving the furniture around at breakneck speed for different scenes, but it’s highly detailed and precisely choreographed. Full credit to movement director Scott Witt who worked with Ryan.

Ryan has gathered a superb ensemble of 10 actors: Keith Agius, Danielle King, Michael Sheasby, Matthew Backer, Drew Livingston, Damien Strouthos, Gabriel Fancourt, Eloise Winestock, Darcy Brown and Ildiko Susany.

Sheasby plays Henry V with the charisma of the captain of the school rugby team. Everyone else plays multiple roles and yet it is always clear who is who and what is happening. Agius makes a wonderful Falstaff (with cushion up his cardigan) and also plays the Chorus, and Winestock is very funny as the feisty, French Princess Katherine, but each and every one of the actors plays their numerous parts with élan.

Eloise Winestock and Michael Sheasby. Photo: Michele Mossop

Eloise Winestock and Michael Sheasby. Photo: Michele Mossop

The sound by Steve Francis, moving vocal compositions by actor Drew Livingston and lighting by Sian James-Holland all contribute magnificently.

Ryan balances the valour and heroism of Henry – who has matured from the callow, irresponsible youth in Henry IV, who hung out in taverns with the reprobate Falstaff, to inspiring leader of his underdog “band of brothers” – with a powerful portrayal of the rank brutality, ugliness and futility of war.

This is one of the most exciting, moving pieces of theatre I’ve seen in Sydney this year. Don’t miss it.

Henry V runs at the Playhouse, Sydney Opera House until November 16. Bookings: www.sydneyoperahouse.com or 02 9250 7777

A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on October 26

 

Fireface: review

Darcie Irwin-Simpson and Darcy Brown. Photo: Phyllis Wong

Darcie Irwin-Simpson and Darcy Brown. Photo: Phyllis Wong

Stories Like These and atyp Under The Wharf

ATYP Studio 1, August 4

Adolescence can be a confusing, angst-ridden time – particularly if your parents are everything you don’t want to become as an adult. But how much does ineffectual (as opposed to abusive) parenting shape a troubled teenager?

In his 1997 play Fireface (first seen in Sydney when the Sydney Theatre Company presented it in 2001) German writer Marius Von Mayenburg presents us with a middle-class family where communication has broken down.

The parents aren’t talking. The father (James Lugton) would rather read newspaper reports about murdered prostitutes than communicate with his wife (Lucy Miller), while she flaunts herself around the home in various states of undress.

Their alienated children, meanwhile, are exhibiting worrying behavioural traits. The burnt blackbird that the mother discovers wrapped in newspaper behind the garage is surely a warning sign but the father is in denial, dismissing it as nothing serious.

In this emotionally arid world, provocative teenager Olga (Darcie Irwin-Simpson) starts using her burgeoning sexuality as a form of power, solace and a means of escape, first seducing her equally alienated younger brother Kurt (Darcy Brown) and then Paul (Ryan Bennett) who catches her eye because of his motorbike.

Jealous at Paul’s arrival, Kurt’s fascination with flames escalates and he really starts playing with fire. There’s no doubt it will end badly – with no prizes for guessing how.

Von Mayenburg structures his taut 100-minute play using 94 short, snappy scenes.

Directing the play for Stories Like These and atyp Under The Wharf, Luke Rogers punctuates the myriad scenes with sharp blackouts and a surge of sound not unlike the explosive crackle of fire (sound design by Nate Edmondson). At times the momentum falters with so many scene breaks but on the whole Rogers manages to keep the tension building.

Simply staged around a table and chairs (set and costume design by Lucilla Smith), Rogers puts the focus firmly on the performances.

The cast of five are all convincing, with Brown in particular capturing Kurt’s weird, psychotic nature, his face looking increasingly blank and his eyes ever more dead as the play unfolds, while Lugton and Miller give just the right weight to the black comedy, as the parents sidestep responsibility and console themselves with the thought that it won’t be long before their troublesome offspring leave home.

Though we may know where it’s going, Fireface is a dark, disturbing play. Rogers could perhaps ramp up the sense of menace a little more but his production is certainly unsettling and sends you home pondering what you’ve just seen.

Fireface is at the ATYP Studio 1, The Wharf, until August 17