The Merchant Of Venice (Sydney Shakespeare Company)

Sydney Shakespeare CompanyVenue: TAP Gallery (Darlinghurst NSW), Aug 7 – 24, 2013
Playwright: William Shakespeare
Director: Steven Hopley
Actors: Mark Lee, Lizzie Schebesta, Anthony Campanella, Alex Nicholas
Image by Rob Studdert

Theatre review
In the modern age of advanced technology and new media, our attention spans continue to diminish at alarming rates. The prospect of sitting through any film or play that runs over 90 minutes can spell torture, but director Steven Hopley’s production makes three hours shrink into just a few blinks of an eye. It is true that time flies when you’re having fun. The Merchant Of Venice is mostly a comedy, and the cast makes full use of comic opportunities, unafraid to explore with silliness and to play for laughs. It can be argued that some of the players are engaged mainly for their ability to make us laugh, and this a decision we are grateful for.

The stand-out actors however, are the ones who excel with the drama they bring to the show. Mark Lee is by far the most accomplished of the group, and is enthralling as Shylock. Lee’s level of focus and conviction in his role brings a level of dignity to the “problematic villain” created by Shakespeare 4 centuries ago. This is an intense and disciplined performance that lifts the entire production, giving it a surprisingly polished gleam. Lizzie Schebesta brings youth and gravitas simultaneously, providing credibility to the otherwise frivolous central love story. Her strong presence holds its own within the male-dominated group, and her Portia impresses as an unexpected feminist figure (as much as the Shakespearean text could allow). Anthony Campanella plays the secondary role of Antonio, but he impresses from the start with excellent command of his lines, somehow able to make every word ring with clarity and truth.

Antonio however, has an awkward relationship with Portia’s fiancé Bassanio, The closeness of these characters is overplayed with a palpable sexual chemistry. This does not lend to the overall balance of the play, especially at its conclusion where all’s well that ends well and Bassanio and Portia are overjoyed at being together at last, with Antonio forgotten in the background. Another matter of disquiet is the handling of the anti-semitic nature of Shakespeare’s work. This production is faithful to its original vision, which does not sit well with contemporary Australian audiences and is a genuine quandary. This issue lingers on after the play has concluded, and one is left with quite shocking ideas of racial prejudice to ponder over, which of course, is never a bad thing.