The Merchant of Venice. By William Shakespeare. Directed by Anne-Louise Sarks. Bell Shakespeare. The Playhouse. Canberra Theatre Centre. Until October 21. Bookings: 6275 2700 or canberratheatre.org.au.
Four centuries after it was written, William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice continues to be shrouded in controversy. For some it is anti-Semitic, depicting the Jew, Shylock (Mitchell Butel) as a vengeful, avaricious moneylender, hell-bent on extracting his contracted pound of flesh of the merchant Antonio (Jo Turner). Antonio has fallen on ill fortune and is unable to pay back the loan, taken out to help his friend Bassanio (Damien Strouthos) woo the fair lady of Belmont, Portia (Jessica Tovey). Others will claim that Shylock is treated unfairly and that the court case before Portia in the guise of Balthasar, a young male lawyer, is contrived and ironically lacks all mercy that she demands of the Jew.
In a gripping piece of storytelling, Bell Shakespeare director, Anne-Louise Sarks and her cast induce their audience to unwittingly sit in judgment at a play that still resonates forcibly with today's audiences. Sarks strips away all superfluity, while managing to retain Shakespeare's broad tapestry of human nature. With dramaturgical precision, extraneous scenes and lines are cut and only characters central to the telling of Shakespeare's absorbing tale of love and hate, justice and injustice, fate and faith are retained. Played out on Michael Hankin's autumnal open air setting, Bell Shakespeare's fine company of players remain in view throughout, seated with their backs to the main action or changing costume at the side. Brechtian in its conceit, the production never allows us to lose sight of our ultimate role as observers and analysts of human behaviour. Hankin's contemporary costuming for the Christians and traditional Jewish garb for Shylock and his compatriot, Tubal (Eugene Gilfedder), emphasise the great divide. Sarks' opening Lord's Prayer isolates Shylock and Jessica (Felicity McKay) as outcasts, in a state defined by wealth, religion and culture.
It all makes for a production that is as entertaining as it is confronting, as absurd as it is profound, as crystal clear in its telling as it is complex in its themes. The cast embraces Sarks' direction with enthusiasm, freshness, and shared intelligence. Lift the lid on any scene and you will discover a dramatic jewel. There is the foolish comedy of the manservant, Launcelot Gobbo (Jacob Warner), and the idiocy of the narcissistic Prince of Morocco (Shiv Palekar) and the arrogant Duke of Aragon (Gilfedder) during the casket scenes. There is the cruelty of Antonio as he spits upon the crouching body of Shylock, or the goading mockery of Gratiano (Anthony Taufa). There is the playful, girlish companionship between Portia and Nerissa (Catherine Davies) and the sparring rhetoric and ironic twists of the courtroom scene.
As Shylock and Portia, Butel and Tovey triumphantly balance the scales of this production's success. Butel's Jew is imbued with the dignity of his tribe. Jessica's elopement with the Christian, Lorenzo (Palekar), feeds his revenge. His hurried exit at the end of the trial drives him to sit cowed with head in hand upon the bench in full view during the Christians' celebration – a righteous man of faith, humiliated by prejudice. Tovey's Portia is no pale imitation. She fresh mints Shakespeare's heroine, making the role her own and imbuing her with delightful naivety, innate intelligence, and wily cunning.
Whether you have never seen The Merchant of Venice or you know every line, Sarks and her cast and creative team will surprise, delight and challenge with a production new-minted for our time.