The Merchant of Venice | Sydney Shakespeare CompanyIndependent productions of Shakespeare are ambitious at the best of times and Sydney Shakespeare Company's The Merchant of Venice proves no exception. You've got to hand it to artistic director, Steve Hopley, though. He has a vision. And he sticks to his guns. To that extent, at least, I'm a big fan of him, the company and this production. Though least of all, this production.

The star turn is Mark Lee, as Shylock. Lee and I attended the same high school (but didn't know each other, as he was a few years ahead) and I well remember his blinding talent in musicals, for which the school was renowned. Like most people, my next experience of him was alongside Mel Gibson, in Gallipoli. I've mused here before as to why two young men of roughly equal talents would enjoy such widely differing levels of success. It doesn't seem fair; especially in light of mad Mel's latter-day outbursts. So, I want Lee to succeed. As Shylock, he certainly has his moments of intensity and clearly demonstrates his skills. It's just that he's ostensibly miscast. Don't get me wrong. I'm not plumping for some stereotype, either in swarthiness or mannerisms. But, as it is, Lee veers (not wildly, but gently) between cliches and goy boy. In other words, I didn't really believe him, in this role. Nor has he been afforded many, or any, of the compelling contradictions and complexities of character that make him so intrinsically fascinating. I wanted to see more equivocation, more torment, as he grappled with exacting understandable revenge, as against his latent tendency for forgiveness.

Craig Annis worked well as an Aussie Gratiano (a mindless blokey-bloke of the ilk we know so well from footy 'culture'), but surpassed himself as the self-loving Prince of Aragon, with his mane of hair, leers, lewd mannerisms and thicker-than-thick Spanish accent. This is like the delicious dessert you get for having steadfastly worked your way through the main course and an inspirationally comical subversion. Full marks to Hopley for going with it.

Anthony Camponella is a little too dry, serious and one-dimensional as Antonio. We don't get any real sense of a personality, I mean, sure, he may be about to lose a pound of flesh, but we still need to see him as more than a benign victim. After all, he's pivotal to the plot: it's Antonio, of all the Venetian Christians, who's infuriated Shylock and led him to pursue a vindictive course utterly at odds with the teaching of his religion. It's about time we moved beyond adaptations in which the impression is given anti-Semitism is all in Shylock's paranoid mind, reducing him to the ridiculous status of Seinfeld's Uncle Leo. What was interesting, however, was what I took to be a hint that Antonio's love for and loyalty to Bassanio (Alex Nicholas, who suffered from something of the same kind of overwrought, Shakespearean earnestness), and vice-versa, might've been something beyond merely platonic.

Renae Loryman is clear-voiced as Jessica (Shylock's daughter, anxious to escape), but could have more of a feisty, rebellious nature, which would, again, enable her to galvanise more interest. As it is, the pathos implicit in her decision to elope with Lorenzo and thereby reject her Jewishness, is obscured. Her pawning of the ring given to her mother by her father is emblematic of this, yet runs the risk of being seen as merely thoughtless.

Richard Hilliar does a good job of portraying Lorenzo, a fellow traveller with the self-righteous Bassanio and Antonio, as the shallow, would-be philosopher that he is, a mantle which casts a shadow over his essentially self-seeking hedonism. I think they call it love. My only quibble was, in going for something quite naturalistic, he spoke too softly; so, even though his diction is fine, the lack of volume meant lines were lost and, at times, it was both aggravating and disengaging.

Rosanna Easton, as Nerissa, Portia's lady-in-waiting and thick-as-thieves confidante, was second only to Portia herself (Lizzie Schebesta). Both proved, for mine, exemplary Shakespearean actors in every respect. They clearly understood the text; their respective characters; relationship; context and significance of their roles. Technically and creatively, these actors are fighting fit for almost any stage. Moreover, Schebesta elevated Portia to her proper standing: a wealthy, ravishing woman, of fierce intelligence; aspirational, surely, for many women, even (or especially) now. She still needs to say 'pardon my antisemitism', but Schebesta ensures we understand Portia as a product of her time and class. Not even her perspicacity allows her to see past the pea-soup fog of prejudice.

Jerry Retford's Gobbo (Bassanio's righthand man) is competent (none of the actors is ever less), if relatively undistinguished. Antonio's Andrew Thompson, as Salarino, is sometimes a little hard to understand, but also, effective enough. Irving Gregory seemed a little out of his element as Balthazar, trying to look comical, but not really hitting the mark. As the Prince of Morocco, he was particularly awkward and apparently self-conscious.

Which leaves the director, who cast himself as Launcelot Gobbo (originally Shylock's less-than-loyal servant, who enthusiastically defects to Bassanio's camp). Hopley discovers and exploits every possible comic nuance; as well, probably, as inventing a few. It was all very entertaining, at first, but started to grate, as it lapsed into self-indulgence of Hopley's undeniable craft and finesse.
Stephanie Todd's design is fussy and superfluous, amounting to so little it might as well have been blackbox.

To conclude, big thumbs up for Easton and Schebesta's performances, which were finely measured and beautifully dealt. While other actors are creditable, there are uneven and arbitrary readings of character which discredit the director as much as Nerissa and Portia honour his decisions. Again, Annis added plenty of colour as the Prince of Aragon. But while Hopley and Lee's expertise shone through, they fell short: Lee because he was simply miscast and struggled, mostly, to convince; Hopley because his characer's bondage to Bassanio was overshadowed by an overblown prestige not intended, I don't reckon, by the text.

Sydney Shakespeare Company presents
by William Shakespeare

Directed by Steven Hopley

Venue: The Tap Gallery | 278 Palmer Street, Darlinghurst
Dates: August 7 – 24, 2013
Tickets: $29 – $25
Bookings: | 1300 GETTIX

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