Saturday, November 11, 2017

The Merchant of Venice

The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare.  Bell Shakespeare at Sydney Opera House, The Playhouse, October 24 – November 26, 2017.

Creative Team:
Director – Anne-Louise Sharks; Set and Costume Designer – Michael Hankin; Lighting Designer – Paul Jackson; Composer and Sound Designer – Max Lyandvert; Voice Coach – Jess Chambers; Dramaturg – Benedict Hardie

Shylock – Mitchell Butel; Jessica – Felicity McKay; Lorenzo / Morroco – Shiv Palekar
Portia – Jessica Tovey; Nerissa – Catherine Davies
Launcelot – Jacob Warner
Arragon / Tubal / Duke – Eugene Gilfedder
Antonio – Jo Turner; Bassanio – Damien Strouthos; Gratiano – Anthony Taufa

Reviewed by Frank McKone
November 10

Some things about The Merchant of Venice have always worried me. The ending of Shakespeare’s text seems to make the play into no more than a highly sexual romantic comedy – about ‘rings’ – as if Portia’s treatment of the Jew, Shylock, was a mere entertaining bagatelle along the way to everyone getting married.

This Bell Shakespeare production has absolved my concerns.  With just a little textual and motivational adjustment, Anne-Louise Sharks has made the play thoroughly modern, and in doing so has perhaps exposed  the author, still in his thirties, allowing himself to be compromised into writing an acceptable ending – leaving the plight of the Jews aside for the sake of a happy Christian conclusion.

First is the question, had Portia worked out the technical legal point – that Shylock must not shed blood, nor take no more and no less than exactly one pound of Antonio’s flesh – before she begins in court?  If so, her speech about mercy being not ‘strained’ is part of a deliberate and malicious strategy to destroy her opponent by extending her attack unnecessarily before hanging him out to dry.

Sharks’ approach made it clear that all these young people were bright young things (excluding Antonio), rather than mature strategists.  So Jessica Tovey’s Portia was genuine in asking Shylock to be merciful, and only when she looks again at the contract does she realise she has another line of argument, which will prevent the killing of Antonio.  And only then does she also realise the implications in Venetian law for the treatment of Shylock because he has effectively threatened the life of a another man.

The second question for me was, whatever happened to Jessica, Shylock’s daughter who has run away with Lorenzo to become a Christian, stealing not just her father’s  money, but his sentimental jewellery?  In Shakespeare’s text, Lorenzo and Jessica are seen together some time before the final scene.  There is a hint there that Shakespeare would have liked to deal with Jessica’s guilt:  Lorenzo brings on music and speaks in highly poetic terms about the excitement of being in love, but Jessica says

I am never merry when I hear sweet music.

Sharks has kept Lorenzo and Jessica actively in play until the very end.  Shakespeare passes them off with the fop of Nerissa giving them what they do not deserve:

There do I give to you and Jessica,
From the rich Jew, a special deed of gift,
After his death, of all he dies possess'd of.

And Lorenzo replying, apparently innocently,

Fair ladies, you drop manna in the way
Of starved people.

But Sharks has connected the dots, giving Portia the final speech, spoken with a new sense of maturity:

It is almost morning,
And yet I am sure you are not satisfied
Of these events at full. Let us go in;
And charge us there upon inter'gatories,
And we will answer all things faithfully.

And then Sharks has Jessica go to one side, reacting against the superficial merriment and drawing the attention of them all as she hangs her head and says quietly “I am ashamed.”  So the play ends.

So now I see the play, and Shakespeare’s thinking in a new light.  And I see the relevance of this play to us in modern times, where it seems we are not to treat ‘different’ people with empathy, but like Antonio to despise them, and cause despicable behaviour in return.  I can see that for Shakespeare, writing in an England which had banned Jews completely since 1290, choosing to write about Venice which had previously accepted them as ‘entrepreneurs’ but had recently restricted them to the ‘ghetto’, empathy with Shylock and Jessica was a challenging thought.

Shakespeare may not have felt able to make his point too strongly, and so kept it hidden in conventional comedy.  Anne-Louise Sharks and Bell Shakespeare in a brilliant performance have completed for him what Shakespeare began.  I thank them for their daring, and hope as Portia says, that

there upon inter'gatories,
… we will answer all things faithfully.