Venue: Seymour Centre (Chippendale NSW), May 22 – 30, 2015
Playwright: William Shakespeare
Director: Richard Cottrell
Cast: Darcy Brown, Michael Cullen, Pip Dracakis, Jonathan Elsom, Lucy Heffernan, Jason Kos, Erica Lovell, James Lugton, Lizzie Schebesta, Christopher Stalley, Damien Strouthos, Aaron Tsindos, John Turnbull
Image by Marnya Rothe
At the centre of Shakespeare’s The Merchant Of Venice is its anti-semitic depiction of the principal antagonist, Shylock, the Jewish moneylender. Productions today face the conundrum of having to adjust their interpretations to fit contemporary sensibilities, while maintaining a level of faithfulness to the author’s original. The script not only demeans Shylock as an individual, it often makes sweeping statements that can only be termed racist.
Richard Cottrell is clearly aware of the problem, as his direction of the work reflects the precariousness of bringing to stage a script that, although well-crafted, is painfully archaic in its representation of attitudes toward Jewish peoples. Cottrell’s show does not hide the outrageously vilifying lines of the text, but subverts them to reveal ugliness of those words. Content that is objectionable by today’s standards, is portrayed as such, so that the company declares its oppositional stance to what Shakespeare had intended. The production is set in pre-WWII, and it encourages us to view the Bard’s vilifications in a context that relates to the rise of Nazism. It is a sophisticated treatment of the material, but the play’s conclusion is preserved sufficiently, so that the story’s distasteful moral is kept intact. It is hard to deny what the work is about, and much as Cottrell is careful with the issue, the show leaves a very bad after-taste. Some are fond of questioning the interminable choice of reviving Shakespeare, but on this occasion, the question is undeniably about the decision to pick this title in particular.
A reason for any interest in Merchant could be that Shylock is among the most spectacularly audacious characters in the Shakespearean oeuvre. Performed by the magnetic John Turnbull, the role is colourful, unpredictable and spine-chillingly dangerous. Turnbull’s work is precise and calculated, but also full of panache and vigour. It is a very stylish performance that is fascinating to watch, and the actor’s ability to present both good and bad sides of his character is complex and quite beautiful. Another star of the production is designer Anna Gardiner, who has created a simple but effective Art Deco set, and a wardrobe of very handsome suits, for an elegant aesthetic that makes the unpleasant goings-on slightly more digestible.
The way we relate to Shakespeare in Australia today is peculiar. We like to think that being suspicious of authority is a crucial part of our identity, yet virtually all quarters readily accept the legitimacy of his genius. The gender bigotry in all his texts is conveniently swept under the carpet, and it appears that we are quite happy as well, to let sleeping dogs lie when it comes to issues of ethnicity and faith. The company has created an entertaining show, and all their individual talents are marvellously present, but we need to take a stronger stand for the things we believe to be true.