It’s known, of course, as one of Shakespeare’s, ah, comedies. We’re talking tragicomedy and, within that genre, it’s certainly more of a tragic play first, with comic interpolations rather than the over way ’round. Like anti-Semitism through the ages, all the way down to the present day, Shakespeare’s persecution of Shylock is unrelenting; unflinching; merciless. When I say Shakespeare, I mean Shakespeare by way of his inventions, in the form of characters.
I’m not one inclined to subscribe to the view that the man himself was an anti-Semite. Quite the contrary. The Most Excellent History Of The Merchant Of Venice, to give it its full, original due (no pun intended), might refer to the ‘extreme cruelty of Shylock’, but if this isn’t supreme irony I don’t know what is. The proof of my contention lies principally (and predictably) in Shylock’s immortal “hath not a Jew eyes?!” speech.
Of course, the play isn’t, first and foremost, written about Shylock. Many people believe he’s the merchant to which the title refers. No, Antonio’s the merchant; Shylock, his bank. Nonetheless, it’s the last who dominates the play, so it’s fortunate that, for this production, director Constantine Costi has cast Geoff Sirmai as such. Sirmai plays the role unapologetically: Shylock wears his Jewishness as prominently as a yellow star; just as he should be able to, if he so chooses. This seems to be Sirmai’s, Costi’s and, I believe, Shakespeare’s point.
There are plenty of other good performances, to boot. In fact, there’s no real faltering, or falterer, save for sue lapses of diction, brought about by lines trailing off, being delivered just a little too rapidfire, or lost to the vernacular, which is thoroughly contemporary. Now, again, I’m no traditionalist or theatrical neocon, but it’s a dangerous game to go wantonly Luhrmann. Even one of the promotional posters proclaims that mission. Of course, tree’s a sound rationale for doing so: bringing the play into the present; making it appealing and accessible; yada yada. Ironically though, sometimes the best-laid plans of mice and men go awry.
As it turns out, this is more, for the most part, The Merchant Of Venice Beach than the sinking Italian port. There are vignettes that mimic TV gameshow falseness, for instance. Thanks to strong production values and the talented cast, this comes off rather well insofar as it goes, but sits awkwardly with the more potent, dramatic scenes. It also tends to go by so quickly that, while the director and cast might have a firm grip on what’s going down, I doubt the audience did. Or will. Which then means they’re talking to themselves, back-patting each other for their ‘cleverness’.
So, I’m not sure it all really works. I’d like it to. I’d like to be the first to applaud the courage it takes, particularly within the confines of a small, independent, trad theatre, to take Shakespeare any place he hasn’t been before. But, again, three cheers for the cast. Andy Fraser’s Antonio, for example, is, suitable, less heroic than is traditional. Here, he seems self-indulgent and lackadaisical; not nearly as untainted as he usually appears. He slouches. He drinks. His Christianity seems capricious and selective. He may be kind and generous to a fault where his friends are concerned, but his outright, unadulterated and very public contempt for Shylock is outrageous and at diabolical odds with his professed, or assumed, piety. Good call.
Tiffany Stoecker’s Portia has all the proper dimensions the character ought: on the one hand, the hapless, coveted heiress, sadly bound by her father’s cruel bequest of a lottery for her hand; on the other a wily, witty, self-possessed woman with the chutzpah to pose not only as a man, but doctor of law, presuming to advise the duke himself on the administration of justice. In so doing, of course, she has the perspicacity to ingratiate herself with her favoured suitor, Bassanio, by saving his best friend, Antonio’s neck (or breast) from being a pound lighter. Unfortunately, in so doing, she replicates Antonio’s disdain for Shylock, stripping of all his assets and dignity.
Thus, both Fraser and Stoecker present complex and intensely interesting faces for their characters. While most performances are more than fine, there are other standouts, like Stephen Lloyd Coombs’ clear, concise and elegant Bassanio; even if he fawns a little too much in courting Portia. He does, of course, get to offer a timeless, and timely, line: “The world is still deceived with ornament.”
John Harrison’s set design certainly bucks the trend for The Genesian, which tends towards lots of construction. Harrison, like Peter Evans’ current season of Pygmalion for the Sydney Theatre Company has opted for deconstruction, exposing the bare, historic patina of The G’s brick walls, which is a surprisingly effective way in which to hark back to the ancient city of Venezia. Counterpointing this is his massive VENICE sign, spelt out with lightbulbs. I’m not sure what the motivation is, but I like the look.
Costi’s is a flawed production, but a lively and provocative one, with strong performances across the board. The greatest strengths, however, lie not in his pretence to accessibility and modernity, but in effective exposition of key dramatic scenes and in opening up the debate, yet again, as to whether this is an anti-Semitic play, or a ply written with the express purpose of condemning anti-Semitism by laying it and the hypocrisy that so often underlies it, utterly bare.
The details: The Merchant Of Venice plays the Genesian Theatre until March 31. Tickets on the venue website.