Photos – Marnya Rothe
Having anything rammed down your throat is likely to make you gag; and none of us get through high-school without choking on a bit of Shakespeare. So while now converted to the cause it isn't hard for me to hate the bard. To me, Shakespeare is high-risk. Even (perhaps especially) such ageless poetry can prove terminally poisonous to the attention-span when handled poorly. As Portia's casket in The Merchant of Venice boldly proclaims: 'Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath.' Shakespeare really is all or nothing. But when it works - where would you rather be?
417 years after Shakespeare wrote The Merchant of Venice (1598), Sport for Jove knocks it out of the park. This production is contemporary, vital and mesmerizing. Ensconced on the Parramatta Rialto, the Riverside Theatre is the perfect venue for one of Shakespeare's most insightful comedies. Director Richard Cottrell allows his cast to animate the characters with energetic personality, while never giving way to self-indulgence or time wasting. Central to this is a commanding grasp of the requirements of Shakespeare's language. Here the cast excels. Articulation and projection is superb. The dialogue is rhythmic without becoming sing-song or glib. Scenes progress with speed and imagination and the story feels effortlessly alive. Sport for Jove has grasped this play, coloured and shaped it into a living whole. It's a pleasure to discover it with them.
As a play The Merchant of Venice is as perplexing as it is amusing. This production emphasises the humor and confection of it as comedy without surrendering any of Shylock's menacing grandeur. Here, John Turnbull is electric and recalls Yul Brynner's meditating intensity. His Shylock is a malicious buffoon, pedantic and vengeful, and yet we learn more from him than any other character. Portia, played with assurance and elegance by Lizzie Schebesta, is two dimensional by comparison. Whip smart, beautiful and rich, she is nonetheless content to be lotteried off by her dead father in a strange re-formulation of the Judgement of Paris. Antonio (James Lugton), Bassanio (Chris Stalley), and the other Christian Venetian's are slickly attired, popular elites (Gatsby-esque), whose sharp 1930's costume escalates the historical stakes exponentially. Is there a more terrifying time in history to have been a European Jew? The ugly racism of the Venetian boys is as natural to them as honour and privilege. This triumvirate of character flaws leads inexorably to their confrontation with the back-alley money lender through whom Shakespeare asks so much.
Which is more important: justice or mercy? If nothing else Shylock wants his pound of flesh. He is not really interested in 'Justice' so much as vengeance. But his obsession with law betrays his utter fragility and motivates our empathy even as we disagree with his means and motives. Shylock is despised, reviled, humiliated. Along with his hard-won money his own daughter is stolen from him – by the heroic Christians with whom we are supposed to identify.
Absent any social possibilities is it any wonder the 'bond' Shylock wants is a legal and not an emotional one? Rather symbolically he wants the flesh closest Antonio's heart. When Shylock says 'The villany you teach me, I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction' we really don't wonder why. And while we are all warmed by Portia's speech on Pauline mercy (It blesseth him that gives and him that takes), it really is a vain ideal and one the abusing Christians – their honour notwithstanding – never even approach with Shylock. Shylock's defeatist vengeance is therefore both inhumane and recognizably human. There are many layers of cruelty in The Merchant of Venice, a play ostensibly about money, mercy, and marriages. This production is far too good to miss.
Sport For Jove presents
The Merchant of Venice
by William Shakespeare
Directed by Richard Cottrell
Venue: The Riverside Theatre, Parramatta
Dates: May 7 – 16, 2015
Venue: The Seymour Center, Sydney
Dates: May 22 – 30, 2015