The Merchant of Venice, Bell Shakespeare Company, Melbourne Arts Centre, 2017Comedy

  • Penny Gay

The Merchant of Venice, Bell Shakespeare Company, Melbourne Arts Centre, 30 July 2017Directed by Anne-Louise Sarks Bell

Reviewed by Penny Gay, The University of Sydney


Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, a production which will tour many Australian towns and cities before concluding in Sydney in October, is the company’s first return to the play since an unremarkable version in 1999. The company’s very first season (1991-2) saw a production of the play, with Shylock played by the company’s founder, John Bell, in a modern-dress no-holds-barred production by Carol Woodrow. That production was particularly emphatic – and controversial – about the gay milieu of Antonio’s Venice. Anne-Louise Sarks has also engaged with contemporary issues, in this case racism, and the result is deeply disturbing, focused on a superb central performance by Mitchell Butel, a highly experienced and much awarded actor, singer, and director (typically, he was rehearsing Shylock while in the evenings playing Mr Burns in the popular ‘post-electric’ musical play of that name).

Sarks’s approach to the play is to see it as the explosion of a conflict based in religious/social affiliations: it could be anywhere in today’s world where one cultural group is far smaller in numbers and power than another. The first act starts with the whole cast on stage sanctimoniously intoning the Lord’s Prayer, with the exception, of course, of Shylock and Jessica, who look clearly uncomfortable. They are obviously outnumbered; they are also social outsiders. Jessica is in plain modest clothing, Shylock in orthodox male Jewish attire. All the Christians wear highly fashionable modern clothing (there is a significant running joke in Portia’s discomfort with her stratospheric stilettos, which she has to put on to meet the suitors; at Bassanio’s arrival she is so flustered that she can’t get them on). Michael Hankin’s set (which only changes slightly throughout the play, with the minor movement of furniture) replicates a small Venetian square – there are no canals, bridges, or gondolas in sight, but a quasi-domestic and local space where Venetians go about their lives. There is one tree in a large pot, shedding autumnally golden, coin-like leaves. Plain benches surround the set on three sides, and actors when not in a scene sit there, silently representing a watching but passive society.

Sarks has cut the play and combined characters (in a ten-person cast, Old Gobbo and the Sallies are gone, with Launcelot fulfilling most of the latters’ roles) into an economical and well-paced drama which focuses clearly on the intertwining trajectories of the Bassanio-Antonio-Portia story and the Shylock-Jessica-Antonio story. There is less clowning than one usually sees, and a more unrelenting depiction of the febrile lifestyle of the Christians (including Portia), and the alienation of the small Jewish community. The ‘romantic comedy’ aspect of the play is considerably undermined: Bassanio (Damien Strouthos) is shallow (though attractively masculine), Portia (Jessica Tovey) and Nerissa (Catherine Davies), smart young women with an unassailable air of privilege. Portia’s posh accent indicates that she at least has been to the right school, funded no doubt by her controlling father; her chum Nerissa is more vulgar but equally assured (the script has cut all implications of a mistress/servant relationship). There is no luxurious ‘Fancy bred’ song to add a wink to Bassanio that he should choose the leaden casket, so the stakes are momentarily higher for Portia’s romantic life, but we are not greatly anxious on behalf of these well-off, complacent young people.

All this, which underlines the unpleasantness imbuing the play, is arguably standard for a modern and contemporary-dress production. What raises it above the run-of-the-mill is an extraordinarily detailed and compelling focus on Shylock (and his daughter Jessica). The publicity postcard has a close-up of Butel overlaid with the words THE VILLAINY YOU TEACH ME I WILL EXECUTE. The programme, similarly, is fronted with a disconcerting image of Butel, his skull-cap clearly in evidence, even more so in his oblique shadow on the (ghetto?) wall. This troubled and alienated man has a doppelgänger that will lead him to a hellish conclusion. Shylock’s ‘Hath not a Jew eyes?’ becomes the play’s central speech, delivered to the audience (not to the onstage characters) as a real intellectual challenge after we have (passively?) watched the treatment accorded him. Sarks places it as the conclusion to a ‘new devised scene’ on a Lear-like ‘windy night’. The scene begins as Shylock speaks lines drawn from 2.8’s reports of his response to his daughter’s elopement; Antonio is still on stage at this point, pulling down the carnival streamers. One doctored line, ‘You knew, Antonio, you knew’ allows us to see why Shylock’s rage will focus on Antonio – who has indeed, in this production, signalled his approval of Lorenzo’s quasi-abduction of a Jewish girl. ‘Justice!’ Shylock cries in despair, and the stage directions then indicate:

More passers-by witness Shylock’s desperation, and we see him being mocked by people in the street. At a certain moment he is spat upon.

Soon Shylock finds himself alone in the street as everyone else has gone in for the night.

Shylock in despair, left alone to weep.

Shylock addresses the audience.

SHYLOCK. He hath disgraced me …

At the end of this challenge to the audience, Shylock dons his prayer shawl and speaks a Hebrew prayer. He has already prayed with Jessica in the scene (2.5) when he is invited to the Christians’ supper: Sarks comments that this ‘was about creating a more complex relationship between Shylock and Jessica and also about representing their faith and culture and a different language onstage’. Shakespeare plus ‘a different language’ – because 20th-century and contemporary history demands this recognition. Jessica is played with beautiful directness by Felicity McKay; her love for the charming, relaxed Lorenzo of Shiv Palekar is overwhelming, and makes her more than happy to unthinkingly go with him (though the crass folk-tale gesture of her throwing down bags of Shylock’s money to him is cut). This mutual affection has interesting ramifications at the end of the play, as I discuss below.

The courtroom scene (with a particularly brilliant use of the set’s benches to create corridors around the edge of the stage, indicating the labyrinthine nature of ‘Justice’) begins much as usual – Antonio weeps (and attempts to pray ‘Our Father’), Shylock prays silently, Gratiano and Bassanio ad-lib lines such as ‘Villain! Cut-throat! Unhallowed butcher! Ravenous fiend!’ etc, and Portia makes her appeal for mercy. The famous speech is tossed off with some complacency; she has an obvious sense of cultural superiority which certainly justifies her concluding ‘Therefore, Jew …’, and leaves the audience unmoved. The real emotional climax of the scene is the forcible baptising, on-stage, of a defeated Shylock: his religious clothes are torn from him, in particular his kippah (skullcap), his always-worn sign of acknowledgement of the protection of God. The shock to Shylock at this blasphemous act is visceral; he cries out and covers his head with his hand, cowering. When he exits from the scene with ‘I am not well’, he (like all the play’s actors) stays in sight on one of the benches. His hand does not leave his head from this moment until the end of the play.

After a somewhat abbreviated home-coming to Belmont, and the resolution of the business of the rings, the production once again focuses our attention back on the treatment meted to Shylock, via his representative, his daughter Jessica. Although she and Lorenzo are a well-matched couple (much of the moonlight scene is cut, so that Lorenzo never has a chance to lecture her pompously on the universal power of music), her guilt wells up when she learns of her father’s enforced deed of gift. The announcement is accompanied by the sportive but shocking placing of Shylock’s kippah on her head by Gratiano, at which she collapses into copious tears with the cry ‘I am ashamed. O Heavens, what have I done?’ (This is actually a line from Shakespeare’s Cressida, whose apostasy has of course been referenced in the final scene’s opening duet.) Sarks comments on her thinking here:

I didn’t want to simply imply that Jessica returns to Judaism.  … My hope was to try and find a hope for the future in Jessica and Lorenzo. It’s tricky to do without any text in a few seconds at the very end. … we did have Lorenzo recognise the pain and confusion inside Jessica and in the very least choose to be with her and comfort her.

In fact he crosses the stage to her and hugs her as she weeps. The play then ends with a single line from Portia, ‘It is almost morning’. This is a clear claim that a new world may be possible – yet the visual image that remains the strongest as the lights go down is Butel’s despairing Shylock, upstage, his hand still covering his head. Despite the ease and comfort of being part of Portia’s privileged household, life will not be easy for Shylock’s daughter; she will have to live with that image of her father’s mistreatment at the hands of an oppressive and merciless culture.

The views expressed in this post are the author’s own.

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Penny Gay

Author: Penny Gay

Penny Gay is Professor Emerita in English and Drama at the University of Sydney. Her major research interest is in performance history, in particular contemporary revivals of Shakespeare and other classics. Her publications include As She Likes It: Shakespeare’s Unruly Women (1994), The Cambridge Introduction to Shakespeare’s Comedies (2008), Teaching Shakespeare Beyond the Centre: Australasian Perspectives (edited with LE Semler and Kate Flaherty, 2013), and Jane Austen and the Theatre (2002). Her academic journal articles have appeared in US, UK and Australian publications, and she has written programme notes for theatre companies including the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Opera Australia, and the Sydney Theatre Company. She is our Associate Editor for Australia.