The Merchant of Venice | Ride OnThe Merchant of Venice currently showing at the Downstairs Belvoir is possibly Shakespeare’s most didactic play. The Director, Tanya Goldberg, describes it in her notes as ambivalent and unresolved. It’s also the one where the subplot, in most people’s minds, eclipses the principle one.

When considering the play however it is well to remember the context of the time. Shakespeare unashamedly wrote for his audience and he was uncompromisingly political in his ‘entertainments’. Most Elizabethan playgoers wouldn’t have made it to Dover let alone Venice, Queen Bess was still on the throne and the war chests, as so frequently was the case in merry England, were sadly depleted. Raleigh had just passed on, and colonization of Virginia, the great hope for a sustainable future had stalled and, yes, Jews were still forbidden entry to the hallowed isle. Like Marlowe’s earlier ‘The Jew of Malta’ this was to have been something of a public ‘mea culpa’ to the much needed ‘bondsmen’ of the day, the children of Abraham. It seems it has ever been thus, banks rule in war and peace. The idea, it seems, is that by humanizing the demon you’ll get rid of the resentment.

The main plot of the Merchant, like so many of Will’s comedies is about deception in appearances, the comedy of errors. There’s no prize for guessing why the women mostly come out of the scrapes looking smarter than their swashbuckling counterparts. The Merchant is no exception.

In this production however the ‘doubles’ are more evident than the original text probably ever had in mind. For a start there is no Shylock and instead almost everyone gets to have a go at him, which may well have been how he would have seen it at the time had he been present. While it became rather disconcerting to have the actor jumping back into the ‘crystal’ chair to take the role it nevertheless worked surprisingly well in the trial when the merchant, Antonio, played by Nathan Lovejoy became his own prosecutor.

The combination of the dual roles of Morocco and Arragon, taken by Richard Gyoerffy, was generally less successful despite a bold attempt at differentiating the characters assigned.

Basically the play is about how a good woman can catch her man and avoid unpleasant mistakes along the way. A side observation is that while men might seem like cads they’re really just big kids at heart. Boys, after all, will be boys.

Just how Shylock makes out in this production is something that has to be mined individually. Understandably it has a rather Hebraic spin to it.

Anna Houston’s Portia was every bit as described in the notes, a ‘liberated, intelligent and powerful woman’ but probably she could have afforded to be less so at least some of the time, it is after all a very intimate space.

Of exceptional note in what was a very energetic if somewhat uneven production was the performance of Ryan Hayward as Bassanio, with a lick of Shylock - well, whose delivery of the text was sheer music. Moderated and modulated it carried a truth and understanding that was consistent throughout. Eve Morey, too, delivered a very sensitive Nerrisa.

As a whole the play proved very engrossing and there probably can be no higher commendation.     

Ride On in association with B Sharp presents
by William Shakespeare

Belvoir St Downstairs Theatre, 25 Belvoir Street, Surry Hills
30 June - 15 July, 2007
Tues 7pm, Weds-Sat 8.15pm, Sun 5.15pm
$29/$23 (preview $20, Cheap Tues pay-what-you-can, min. $10)
9699 3444 or

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