Photos – Prudence Upton
Sometimes contentiously counted by certain scholars as among Shakespeare’s so-called “problem plays”, The Merchant of Venice is indeed one of the most challenging works in the Bard’s canon for modern audiences. With a central conflict heavily informed by anti-Semitism and entailing life-or-death consequences, yet contained within and moreover concluded by a framework which has all the hallmarks of one of Shakespeare’s light cross-dressing comedies. The play has thus long been identified as having what modern screenplay critics would rather prosaically call “inconsistencies of tone”.
Debate has long raged over whether the deployment of racist sentiments within the context of its plot and characters renders the whole play itself anti-Semitic, subversively inclusive, or if it occupies some other, more complex and ambivalent liminal space. Those seeking to argue against interpretations of the text as embodying an inherent anti-Semitism contend that Shylock is a sympathetic antagonist with legitimate grievances against his Christian persecutors, who in turn do not deny their mistreatment of the Jewish moneylender. Between the clearly vile and unprovoked racist abuse perpetrated by the play’s notional protagonists, and in affording Shylock the stunning “if you prick us, do we not bleed?” speech to not only justify his revenge but also arguing for his own equality, Shakespeare at the very least problematises any entirely straightforward reading of a “villainous Jew” stereotype.
What remains quite problematic, however, is the narrative framework. Not simply for the aforementioned questions of tone whereby the play has a comedic ending once Shylock’s case has been resolved, but in terms of the narrative outcome itself. However sympathetic an antagonist he may be, Shylock is stripped of all his wealth and forcibly converted to Christianity, punished as though befitting a villain, while the Christian protagonists achieve not only legal victory over him, but are showered with good fortune, made richer than ever, and happily married. To add insult to injury, partway through the play Shylock’s daughter Jessica steals from him and elopes, voluntarily converting to Christianity. In the absence of a clearly pervasive framework of the Tragedy genre, and by any conventional metric of narrative closure, all this would seem to indicate to the audience that justice has been done, with the guilty Jew punished and the righteous Christians rewarded.
Whether Shakespeare intended to subtly subvert structural and societal conventions which he perhaps could not openly flout, in terms of expectations of the portrayal of villainous Jews and happy endings for young Christian lovers, is something with which every production of the play must grapple. Or indeed, even if reconciled to the Bard’s authorial intent remaining unknowable, each new director of The Merchant of Venice is presented with the challenge of deciding if and how they wish to reinterpret this challenging material in their own cultural context.
Director Anne-Louise Sarks has crafted a robust production for the Bell Shakespeare Company, which seems on the one hand to avoid doing much in the way of radical reengineering of the text, largely embracing rather than seeking to eliminate its tonal disjunctions. On the other hand, this approach makes a keen point to emphasise the anti-Semitic behaviour of its protagonists in an unflinchingly harsh light. In these times of the “Black Lives Matter” and “Me Too” movements, resurgent white supremacists emboldened by a Trump presidency, controversially-handled same-sex marriage surveys et al. leading to renewed public attention to prejudice and social inequality both here and overseas, this approach to Shakespeare’s racially-charged work hits home.
In this production Shylock is literally spat upon and kicked, but more powerful still is the scene at the conclusion of his legal case. Shylock is physically restrained by our putative heroes while they set about the forcible removal of his orthodox Jewish vestments, grinning with a sadistic relish while hanging a crucifix around his neck in their place. The scene in no ambiguous terms reads as a hate crime writ large, a profound and malicious violation, and Shylock’s grief and humiliation are palpable.
The play not only tells and shows us how the context of the moneylender’s subjection to prior racial abuse has led him to escalate matters, seeking revenge on Antonio with his “pound of flesh” contract. Even though the punishment on him is technically more “merciful” than the attempted murder Shylock sought to enact, none of this does anything to diminish how shocking this scene is to watch. In addition to this strong choice of staging, Sarks and dramaturge Benedict Hardie have made the bold decision to present a brief coda moment to the very end of the play, not traditionally included, in which Shylock’s daughter Jessica breaks down in grief over being presented with the news that she and her Christian husband will, by order of the state, inherit her father’s money against his own wishes. Presumably overcome with remorse for her own betrayal of him as well as shame over his humiliation at the hands of the Christians with whom she has chosen to ally herself, she falls to her knees and howls at the final curtain.
It is a dark and disquieting note to conclude on, undercutting the conventional ending’s light tone of romantic comedy, making sure we do not forget our last view of the traumatised Shylock some scenes earlier, shaking and clutching the crown of his head from where his yarmulke was gleefully ripped off by his Christian tormentors. It seems very much a parting salvo and mission statement for this production, whereby Sarks allows most of the text’s comedy and contrivances to play as written, with the cast of supposedly likeable protagonists portrayed as frequently charismatic and engaging, yet when they turn nasty in their conflicts with Shylock, things turn unambiguously grim.
With unobtrusive modern dress and Brechtian sensibilities of having the entire cast onstage at all times, visibly changing costumes and sitting out scenes for which they are not required on benches lining the performance area, the stagecraft is simple yet effective, allowing the actors to hold our focus. The entire ensemble is strong, but special mention goes to Anthony Taufa and Catherine Davies, who are at turns repellent and delightful as the more comedic secondary couple Gratiano and Nerissa, although they are outshone in the comedic stakes by Jacob Warner, who is hilarious as the obliviously eccentric Launcelot. Jessica Tovey walks a fine line of endearing and cruel as Portia, while Felicity McKay is luminous and heartbreaking as Jessica.
The highest praise must be afforded to Mitchell Butel as Shylock, one of the great coveted Shakespearean roles, and one often reserved for more senior actors. Butel’s performance is fascinating, at turns subtle and ferocious, evoking both bile and pity in a nuanced and layered portrayal, one which is emblematic of both the difficult and contestable play itself, as well as this production’s complex and often seemingly ambivalent relationship to its own material.
An excellent cast in a strong rendition of a play that continues to confound us after centuries, Bell Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice will make you laugh, gasp and, hopefully, discuss it at great length afterwards.
Bell Shakespeare presents
The Merchant of Venice
by William Shakespeare
Director Anne-Louise Sarks
Venue: The Playhouse, Sydney Opera House | N/A
Dates: 27 October – 26 November 2017
Tickets: from $50
Bookings: 02 9250 7777 | www.bellshakespeare.com.au