Wednesday, August 21, 2013

The Merchant of Venice

The Merchant of Venice (Sydney Shakespeare Company) plays at the Tap Gallery from August 7-24 2013. By William Shakespeare, directed by Stephen Hopley.

Sydney Shakespeare Company’s production of The Merchant of Venice is a clean, clever production of Shakespeare’s play. It adroitly handles all the multifarious threads of the narrative without it ever seeming laborious. It is deftly directed, beautifully performed, and all in all, a thoroughly enjoyable piece of theatre.

There is one glaring problem with The Merchant of Venice as a play with which all modern productions must deal: it is deeply, and undeniably, racist. Shylock, the Jewish banker who is arguably the play’s most memorable character, played here with aplomb by Mark Lee, is bullied, derided, and discriminated against by his peers in commerce. When Antonio (Anthony Campanella), the merchant of the play’s title, comes to him to borrow money, Shylock cannot resist exacting a sinister bond: if Antonio forfeits, then Shylock will claim a pound of his flesh. Various accidents of fate mean that Antonio cannot, in fact, pay his debt, and Shylock, whose daughter Jessica (Renaye Loryman) has recently been stolen away by Christian suitor Lorenzo (Richard Hilliar), is not inclined to be merciful. The cleverness of gender-bending Portia (Lizzie Schebesta, in a truly excellent performance) means that Shylock eventually forfeits both his money and the pound of flesh, as well as his entire fortune, and he leaves the stage a wreck of a man, jeered at by those who have bested him. (I know this counts as spoilers, but come on – we all know the plot of The Merchant of Venice by now, right? I mean, it’s been around since 1596, so we should all have had ample time to catch up.)

It is to this production’s credit that Shylock’s exit and his treatment at the hands of the plays other characters more generally is deeply, deeply uncomfortable. There is no escaping the fact that anti-Semitism is alive and well and kicking in this play: this cannot be fought. It can only be problematised, and this production of The Merchant of Venice does a great job of it. We sympathise with Shylock not only through his famous “if you prick us, do we not bleed?” speech, but even at the play’s denouement, when he is prepared to cut out Antonio’s heart. We understand his motivations: just how upset he is not only by his daughter’s betrayal, but by the years of abuse that have been heaped upon him. This is a triumph of performance – Mark Lee does a fantastic job – but perhaps moreso of direction. It is evident that director Stephen Hopley has thought deeply about how to tread in this area, and the result is highly commendable.

This extends beyond the Shylock plot to the whole show. Dramaturgically, this production is very strong. Hopley’s cut of the script is neat and elegant – it lingers perhaps a little too much in the clowning of Lancelot Job (played by Hopley), and is a little slow to start, but finds it feet very quickly. It is a precise and assured adaptation, with just the right amount of irreverence. It is important to remember, amidst all these deep issues surounding the play’s racist politics, that it is a comedy, and that really shines through here. While it has gravity where gravity is needed, it is in other ways screamingly funny.

This is especially of true of the plot involving Portia – more particularly, the scenes where her suitors come and are asked to sue for her hand by choosing a casket (of gold, of silver, or of lead) to unlock. The scene where Craig Annis’s Fabio-esque Prince of Arragon attempts to win her hand is agonisingly hilarious. I cannot speak highly enough of Lizzie Schebesta’s performance as Portia, not just in this scene, but in the whole show. Ably backed by Rosanna Easton as Nerissa, she has both humour and gravitas. Her scenes with Bassanio (Alex Nicholas) are wonderfully romantic, and the poise and demeanour with which she handles the legal scenes at the end are remarkable. Schebesta’s performance is probably the best I’ve seen in any Shakespeare play in 2013 (and I’ve seen A LOT of Shakespeare this year).

In case it isn’t already glaringly obvious, I really, really liked this production. It takes a little while to really kick into gear – don’t expect the opening ten minutes or so to blow you away – but once Schebesta as Portia enters the picture, it really catches alight. It’s perhaps not the most adventurous production of Shakespeare ever, but it is clever, adept, and thoroughly enjoyable. Make sure you go and see it.

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