The Merchant of Venice and The Taming of The Shrew
Shakespeare by the Sea, Halifax, Canada, 2014
Reviewed by Yolana Wassersug
Now in its 21st season, Shakespeare by the Sea is a perennially beloved aspect of summertime in Nova Scotia. The company has performed its site-specific outdoor plays in various historical landmarks around the city, but mainly make their home in Point Pleasant Park, on the ruined remains of the Cambridge Battery, a military fortification built under the auspices of Edward Cornwallis in late eighteenth century. The fading brick structure provides a versatile backdrop for performance; it offers actors a multitude of levels to stand on, nooks to hide in, and corners to peer over. The audiences at these plays are encouraged to enjoy a casual and convivial evening; spectators bring their picnic baskets, blankets, and dogs. They laugh gleefully when the actors joke about spitting on them if they are seated in the front row, and join in when actors lead them in singing ‘happy birthday’ to a child in the audience during the interval.
Historically, the company’s repertory season has been made up of one comedy and one tragedy, plus a musical adaptation of a fairy tale for children. This summer, however, the company broke with tradition and chose two comedies, The Merchant of Venice, directed by Elizabeth Murphy, and The Taming of the Shrew, directed by Jesse MacLean. It is, of course, very possible to problematize the comic outcome of both of those plays, and highlight the more somber and provocative content of both narratives. However, both of these productions were almost relentlessly optimistic, opting to squeeze as much festive comedy from the plays as possible. Murphy and MacLean have very different styles, and the productions shared little in their setting, design, or tone. However, both directors chose to deliver broad, feel-good comedy over a nuanced consideration of the plays’ darker subjects: inequity, intolerance, greed, and the miscarriage of justice.
McLean’s production of Shrew was set in modern-day Italy. Without the Induction scene, and with a number of wise cuts, it clipped along at a brisk pace, running barely over two hours, but still taking the time to indulge fully in perfectly executed slapstick: Dan Bray’s Gremio took running dives while trying to pick a fight with Tranio (Simon Rainville); James Maclean played Grumio with a bouncing hyperactivity that was almost cartoon-like.
The women in the cast gave standout performances. Bianca (Hilary Adams) manipulated the men around her, indiscriminately flirting with her suitors just for fun, dropping her book or bouquet of flowers just to have them stoop to pick it up, and putting on a show of fake tears whenever she needed to get her father’s attention and sympathy. Kate (Tringa Rexhepi) was very high-energy in the first acts of the play; as the ‘shrew’ she expressed her displeasure with everyone around her through an astonishing amount of slapping, kicking, and clawing.
However, in the final act of the play, the show’s energy level mellowed significantly, when shrewish Kate melted away and tame Kate took over. When Petruchio (Tom Gordon Smith) demanded that Kate call Vincentio a young woman, all her resistance to his authority disappeared. Kate suddenly found Petrucio’s domineering behaviour funny and charming, and delighted in playing along with his mockery of the old man. Throughout this production the text was never treated as sacrosanct, the actors liberally including ad-libs for a laugh, but Kate’s speech in the final act was delivered without any cuts or additions. Rexhepi performed the speech without a hint of irony, a note of sarcasm, or a knowing wink to the audience. This Kate evidently was successfully and easily ‘tamed’, sincerely believing the statement ‘thy husband is thy lord, thy life, they keeper’ (5.2.155), and leaving the audience to wonder what could have possibly motivated such a drastic change of heart.
For Merchant Murphy also chose comedy over tragedy whenever possible, and some cuts and changes in the text were used to alleviate tensions between characters. Jessica’s (Hilary Adams) pregnant statement ‘I am never merry when I hear sweet music’ (5.1.67) was cut, and her marriage to Lorenzo (Scott Baker) presented in an idyllic light. In the courtroom scene, the Duke of Venice was changed to a Duchess played by Tringa Rexhepi. Although the actress was formidable in the role, the choice diminished the impact of Portia (Margaret Legere) and Nerissa’s (Kathryn McCormack) cross-dressing in order to participate in the world of law. Since the courtroom was no longer an exclusively male space, it was much less transgressive for Portia and Nerissa to be there.
Some of the Christians in this play hated Jews: Salerio and Salanio, played by Jacob Sampson and Daniel Gervais, spit on Tubal (Dan Bray) when he passed by. Charles Douglas, as Gobbo, had a relationship with Jessica that seemed friendly at first, but later in the play his claims that she would not enter heaven were cruel and direct rather than playful. However, much of the production was preoccupied with making the young lover characters seem more tolerant by mitigating their xenophobia. When Gratiano (James MacLean) slips up and calls Jessica an ‘infidel’ (3.2.222), he was immediately reprimanded with disapproving glances and ‘tut, tuts’ from Bassanio, Portia, and Nerissa. Bassiano (Ben Irvine) looked noticeably uncomfortable when Antonio (Simon Rainville) spoke harshly to Shylock (Paul Rainville), and tried to keep his friend from letting his anger get the better of him. Portia insulted the Prince of Morocco (Tom Gordon Smith) because of his ‘complexion’, but spoke that word as if ‘complexion’ referred to the fact that the prince overweight and not to the colour of his skin.
Despite efforts to tone down the racist vitriol from the lover characters, the play did little to humanize Shylock and gave the audience little reason to sympathize with him. He seemed intent on destroying Antonio from the outset of the play, rather than gradually coming to hate Antonio more after Jessica’s elopement. For reasons that are unclear, Shylock was distinguished from the rest of the Venetians by his accent (despite the early 16th century setting, he sounded like an aging New Yorker). Bewilderingly, Tubal and Jessica did not share this verbal characteristic, setting Shylock apart not only from the Christian Venetians, but from everyone in his world.
Perhaps, on a festive outdoor stage, on a warm evening at the end of summer, the choice to let both of these plays be light, romantic comedies was exactly what the packed audiences wanted and needed. However, both plays are challenging, and much of what makes them challenging was redacted. In order to use theatre to talk about difficult issues such as misogyny or anti-Semitism, a production needs to be willing to point directly at those issues without accidentally embodying them. I do not believe it was purposeful, but, sadly, these productions accidentally endorsed the intolerance that they should have confronted and critiqued.
About the author:
Yolana Wassersug recently submitted her PhD thesis at the Shakespeare Institute, Stratford-upon-Avon, and she now teaches at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada. Her main research is on visual art in Renaissance drama. Follow Yolana on Twitter @YoliWassersug.