Merchant of Mirth: Review of Sport for Jove’s Merchant of Venice
In recent times Sport for Jove has proven itself to be one of the most exciting companies in Sydney. While the STC has trodden a less adventurous path (with some exceptions), Sport for Jove has consistently pushed the envelope; and while Belvoir has been gutting classics, Damian Ryan has been giving masterclasses on how to deliver thoughtful and original adaptations. Apparently the dog ate Simon Stone’s homework for that lesson.
Enter now The Merchant of Venice (1598), and make no mistake, this is a good piece of theatre, but it isn’t quite great. First, what makes it good: The Merchant of Venice is a possible contender for one of the all-time great comedies, because, as with all of Shakespeare’s writing, there is a lot going on behind the laughs. Bassanio is in love with Portia; however, he lacks the necessary funds to meet the high expenses of a suitor. He turns to his friend Antonio the Merchant, but the man is cash-poor as all his investments are currently overseas. Instead the pair goes to the moneylender Shylock in order to secure a loan with Antonio as the guarantor. Shylock has no love for Antonio: for years Antonio has disparaged Shylock’s Jewish faith, and his habit of lending money without interest has meant Shylock has had to keep his rates low. Yet, Shylock offers them 3000 ducats without interest, on the condition that if it cannot be repaid, he may take a pound of Antonio’s flesh. So off Bassanio goes to woe and win Portia’s hand. In the meantime (of course) all of Antonio’s investments fail, and Shylock comes to demand his bond. A court case follows in which Antonio is saved by an unlikely heroine.
From Elizabethan times until the nineteenth century the Jew, Shylock, was traditionally portrayed as the straight antagonist, and while it’s easy to read the play as anti-Semitic or racist, as some reviewers have, this would be overly simplistic. The beauty of Shakespeare is that he never just writes about people as a group or a race, he writes about people of flesh and blood. Shylock has spent his life as a scorned second class citizen, the hatred of others has twisted him and made him lust for revenge. And so he turns to the courts to use the law to give him the justice he has long looked for. It is extreme no doubt, but to his mind justice all the same. The court and the judge plead that he practice mercy, but he is adamant that he will have his bond. What is interesting, though, is through this court scene Shakespeare is making just as much a comment about Christians as he is the Jews. Those Christians that counsel mercy in turn have their own opportunity to show Shylock mercy once his contract is deemed void, yet they do not give it. Shakespeare shows the hypocrisy inherent to people. This message is still more than relevant today and it asks us to think about how we should treat others we would label as different to ourselves, less our deeds create monsters where there were none.
Director Richard Cottrell set his piece during the 1920s, and this seems a fine choice. An art deco screen acts as a back drop, and the costumes are all impeccably selected to match. The roaring twenties mark a time of lavish excess; here we think of Scott Fitzgerald and his string of tragic characters with outwardly glamorous lives that mask a deeper hollowness. This is a big theme within a play so interested in money, as highlighted by Bassanio’s dilemma over which chest to select to win Portia’s hand. All that glitters is not gold, and is oft insubstantial when compared to the things that truly matter. This all sits well with the text, and shows good understanding of what is going on. There are no problems here.
Next, why The Merchant of Venice fails to be great: and in this case the fault lies with some of the performances.
Lizzie Schebesta plays the infamous Portia, a wealthy heiress from Belmont. By far one of the cleverest characters, the actress is required to display an enduring strength and intelligence that persists throughout the play. In this way, however, Schebesta mischaracterised Portia. Whilst aesthetically pleasing for the role, Schebesta’s Portia was emotional and casual, whereas Shakespeare’s Portia is rational and thoughtful. The mistake with the former is that Portia’s role in Act II comes out of left field and feels entirely unjustified. That most incredible ‘the quality of mercy’ speech is unmeasured and fails to land. This has a ripple effect on the entire courtroom scene. We miss the deep seated hypocrisy contained within it – a most crucial aspect. To this end and further still, Schebesta’s Portia lacked the punch required to reach the poignancy inherent in the play.
For the most part, though, the performances were generally acceptable. Playing opposite Schebesta was Christopher Stalley as Bassanio. As Portia’s true love, Stalley was warm, resolute and lovely to watch. Similarly pleasing was Damien Strouthos as Gratiano (a friend of Bassanio) and Erica Lovell as Nerissa (Portia’s lady-in-waiting and confidant), both of whom provided solid comic relief (individually and as lovers). Michael Cullen also demonstrated wonderful timing and flavour in the role of Lancelot, a ‘fool’ and Bassanio’s servant.
Other performances though managed to hit some heights. James Lugton presented a quietly measured performance as Antonio, the merchant, being entirely more grounded than his younger counterparts. It is a difficult and thankless task to prepare a character for impending death with very little dialogue to match, yet Lugton was more than up for the challenge. Noteworthy also was Aaron Tsindos as the Prince of Morocco who stole the show – his farcical performance of the arrogant monarch was uproariously funny, indulgent and deliciously over the top.
The real heavyweight and star of the show was the vivacious John Turnbull as Shylock, the perilous Jewish moneylender. Turnbull’s command of the stage was virtually unmatched as the audience remained enraptured by this vengeful, spiteful little man. His Shylock was akin to a Faustian devil – slippery, elegant, fast talking yet wholly unsympathetic. Further still, Turnbull’s Yiddish Italian dialect slithered across the room like a poisonous serpent, ready to strike at any moment. He moved, we watched. He spoke, we listened.
Credit too should go to Ensemble members Jonathan Elsom in various roles, Darcy Brown as Solanio (a Venetian gentleman), Pip Dracakis as Beatrice (the maid), Jason Kos as Lorenzo (a friend of Bassanio and Antonio) and Lucy Heffernan as Jessica (Shylock’s daughter). All worked wonderfully together and within the space, making for a pleasing effort overall.
The Merchant of Venice is still a fantastic piece of theatre, and it has been done to a professional standard. You will not be disappointed in this show. But the tragedy of this comedy is that it could have delivered an extra punch that was pulled at the last moment.
The Merchant of Venice is playing at the Seymour Centre until the 30th of May. For more information see: http://www.sportforjove.com.au/theatre-play/the-merchant-of-venice