Saturday, October 14, 2017

The Merchant of Venice - Bell Shakespeare

Shylock (Mitchell Butel) receives grace

Review by John Lombard

Moneylender Shylock may be seeking a literal pound of flesh "nearest the heart" from merchant Antonio, but you have to wonder how much his own heart is in it.

When Shylock brokers the "pound of flesh" contract it is not clear whether this is a plot to entrap a tormentor, or whether it is intended as a genuine act of detente.

Mitchell Butel plays Shylock with a humour and generosity that suggests that he sincerely intends to be friends with Antonio, and only decides to claim Antonio's life as forfeit after his daughter elopes with a member of Antonio's entourage. 

But even then he needs to build up the courage to seek revenge, wrapping himself in a Tallit and finding the strength to murder in solemn prayer.  This isn't a plotting villain, this is a kind man struggling to find the will to be cruel.

Antonio (Jo Turner) by contrast is a rabid anti-Semite, condemning the Jewish Shylock even while begging for a loan.  We hear Shylock give a litany of the abuses that have been heaped on him by Antonio and his friends, and in Shylock's darkest moment we even see Antonio spit on him.

With all that in mind, it was certainly optimistic of Antonio is become an accessory in the theft of Shylock's daughter and goods while on the hook to the moneylender of a pound of his flesh.  What did he think was going to happen?

Antonio is made to suffer for his foolishness.  When his investments all fail Shylock demands his bond, and Antonio must face both impending death and grisly torture.  In one visceral moment his friends hold him in place while the knives inch towards his bare chest.

But after that his character arc comes unstuck.  Portia tells Shylock that "the quality of mercy is not strained", but Antonio fails to learn that lesson.  His mercy is wrath, for while he saves Shylock from poverty, he forces him to convert to Christianity.  A crucifix is slipped over the struggling Shylock's neck as though Antonio is marking his skin with a hot brand.

This production also makes explicit the hint of a homosexual relationship in the fervent friendship of Antonio and his roguish friend Bassanio (Damien Strouthos).  Antonio is played as in love with Bassanio, even giving him a tender kiss on the lips as a farewell.

Bassanio's courtship of the wealthy and brilliant Portia (Jessica Tovey) is especially effective in this production.  Eugene Gilfedder and Shiv Palekar provide comic highlights as truly odious potential suitors, but there is an authentic truth to the bond between the adventurous and risk-taking Bassanio and the cloistered but spirited Portia.

Merchant of Venice is notable for having elaborate plot devices that seem dropped into the play at random - Portia's courtship involves a fairy-tale guessing game, and after Shylock is foiled the play has a final sequence where the new husbands are tricked out of their rings by their wives disguised as men.

But this final kink resonates perfectly with the homosexual undercurrent in this production.  When boofy Gratiano (Fayssal Bazzi) tries to explain to his new wife Nerissa (Catherine Davies) the spectacular charm of the boy he gave his ring to, both she and Portia seem to have a cosmic frustration that they had to trick their husbands into honour and devotion by slipping on trousers.  Apparently bromance can trump the claims of marriage unless wives bring it to heel.

Ultimately this is a production that successfully humanises Shylock, to the point where it even reverses Shakespeare's intent.  Shylock did try to kill someone, so we can't quite give him a medal, but the production gives a lot of emphasis to his suffering and the unfairness of his treatment - even the law is rigged against him.

In a departure from Shakespeare's original, at the conclusion we see Shylock's wayward daughter Jessica collapse in guilt at what she has done to her father, and by extension shames the Christian cast that have tormented and abused the Jew.  The contract that grants Jessica and her beau Lorenzo Shylock's wealth after his death should be a mark of triumph over the villain, but instead Lorenzo shreds it in shame and atonement.

Director Anne-Louise Sarks has adroitly honoured and redeemed Shakespeare's play of a villainous Jew as a tragedy of a tormented man seeking revenge on his bullies - and with all of the vitality and freshness we expect from Bell Shakespeare.

Finally though, it is only Shylock's kindness that has him give up on the pound of flesh so easily - if he really could not shed a drop of blood and had to secure precisely one pound, all he really had to do was take his time... and carve slowly.