Review: The Merchant Of Venice (Bell Shakespeare)

Venue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), Feb 25 – Apr 1, 2017
Playwright: William Shakespeare
Director: Anne-Louise Sarks
Cast: Mitchell Butel, Catherine Davies, Eugene Glifedder, Felicity McKay, Shiv Palekar, Damien Strouthos, Anthony Taufa, Jessica Tovey, Jo Turner, Jacob Warner
Image by Prudence Upton

Theatre review
It is clear that Shakespeare wrote The Merchant Of Venice for an antisemitic audience. When we revisit the play today, there are choices to be made in its interpretation, to appropriately address its inherent prejudices. If it was indeed Shakespeare’s intention to shame and vilify Jewish people, contemporary productions must take the radical decision of going against the playwright’s will, or risk making statements that are completely unacceptable in our modern day.

Director Anne-Louise Sarks shifts the discussion from being an indictment on Jews, to one that chastises both Christianity and Judaism, effectively turning all the characters in The Merchant Of Venice uniformly into villains, and deftly solving the problem of Shakespeare’s racism. It is a thoroughly enjoyable staging, with commendable proficiency in all aspects, but it is the dialogue between Sarks and Shakespeare that is most engaging.

In imposing contemporary sensibilities onto the piece, Sarks lets us observe an evolution that has taken place over four centuries, and gives us the opportunity for repudiation and rectification. There is no better reason to remount classics, than using them to distance ourselves from the traditions and cultures they represent.

In acts of subversion, symbols of power, along with their gatekeepers and revered masters, are often implicated in the creation of something progressive and new. If we are to do Shakespeare endlessly, we must not permit the repetition of mistakes, even if it means changing the very essence of what is being said.

The role of Antonio the pious Christian, is carefully modified in this iteration to provide new meaning. Actor Jo Turner plays him unforgivable and contemptible, so that we too, want his pound of flesh. Shylock is performed by Mitchell Butel with excellent nuance, providing an image of vulnerable humanity, coupled with a vengeful ferocity, to make comprehensible the character’s temperament and intentions. It is an excellent cast, inventive and entertaining in all their contributions, for a show as amusing as it is intelligent.

In 2017, it is no longer tolerable to express any form of racial discrimination, but religion has itself become susceptible to scrutiny. In our refusal to abide by Shakespeare’s sanctimonious depiction of Christianity through the denigration of Jews, how we think about The Merchant Of Venice must go through transformation. What our gods represent must be allowed to move with the times, even if it means to disregard those who insist on adhering to unreasoning traditions.

www.bellshakespeare.com.au