The Genesian Theatre's production of The Merchant of Venice is a decent one. It features some very promising performances and overall, it's very enjoyable. However, it's fallen prey to one of the common traps that comes when trying to put on Shakespeare and make it relevant to a modern audience – trying too hard.
This production takes Shakespeare's text and locates it in 1950s Italy, much like Bell Shakespeare did with their excellent production of Much Ado About Nothing last year. Unlike Bell's production, this update felt forced – like it was updated just to do something wacky with Shakespeare. I didn't really get a sense of why this particular period was chosen, what particular value it added to the show. Stronger dramaturgy would have helped, not only with the issues around the setting update, but also with the cohesiveness of the production as a whole – as it stands, it felt fragmented, and that meant that a lot of the tension that drives the plot was lost (this did, however, improve dramatically in the second act). There is a lot of ambiguity in The Merchant of Venice, and I think that this production was trying to highlight that, but it ended up being a bit confused.
It could also have benefited from some stronger direction – there are several occasions during which the actors seem to get carried away with their own jokes. While some of this is genuinely amusing, not all of it is, and the bits that are amusing get lost. Several of the cast also tended to shout and screech rather than delivering their lines (something which is fine in moderation but not all the time) which meant that the lines themselves got lost. Firmer direction might have addressed these problems: as it was, I felt like a lot of the actors were attacking, rather than understanding, their lines.
That said, there were some excellent performances in this show from some very promising actors I hope to see again. Tiffany Stoecker was fantastic as Portia. Her scenes were easily the most enjoyable in the disjointed first half of the play and her character growth in the second was outstanding. I also really enjoyed the work of Harriet Gordon Anderson as Jessica and Steven Lloyd Coombs as Bassanio (but especially in his turn as Arragon, which is hilarious). Andrew Fraser's interpretation of Antonio as a drunk washed-up businessman was interesting if not wholly consistent with the text, and Geoff Sirmai certainly deserves a mention for his performance as Shylock. I'd also like to commend the set design of John Harrison – I thought he really made the most of the small Genesian stage and gave the actors a great space to perform in.
Overall, there is a lot to like about this production of The Merchant of Venice. However, in its earnest desire to do something interesting and have fun with Shakespeare, it overshoots the mark. A little moderation in the acting and directing in this show would have gone a long way.
Genesian Theatre presents
THE MERCHANT OF VENICE
by William Shakespeare
Director Constantine Costi
Venue: Genesian Theatre | 420 Kent Street Sydney
Dates: 18 Feb - 31 March, 2012
Times: Friday and Saturday nights 8pm, Sundays 4.30pm
Tickets: $25 | $20 conc
Bookings: www.genesiantheatre.com.au | 1300 237 217