Theatre Review: Bell Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice gets a little lost at sea (at the SOH Playhouse until 26th November)

Bell Shakespeare Company’s latest production of The Merchant of Venice has a few high points. But overall Director Anne-Louise Sarks has played it pretty safe and as a result there’s nothing about this show that really stands out.

Listed among Shakespeare’s comedies, The Merchant of Venice contains some of Shakespeare’s most well-known characters. First, there’s Shylock, the Jew, who agrees to loan money to Antonio on the proviso that if he does not repay the debt he must sacrifice a pound of his own flesh. Then there’s Portia, whose late father decides the best way to choose a husband for his daughter is through a lottery of three caskets. Portia later goes on to deliver one of the strongest female speeches of Shakespeare’s entire cannon.

Through The Merchant of Venice we learn that “all that glitters is not gold”, “the quality of mercy is not strained” and that if we prick them, Jews will indeed bleed. We are also taught to fear and persecute the minority for their difference and revel in their misfortune. And this is what makes Merchant a difficult show to stage in this era of casual racism. We all know that we shouldn’t judge someone on the basis of their religious beliefs and yet we do so all too readily (for ‘Jew’ read ‘Muslim’). Does this then make Merchant a much deeper play than originally conceived, requiring a more serious treatment than is typical of Shakespeare’s other cross-dressing comedies?

Mitchell Butel certainly adopts this approach in his interpretation of Shylock. It is a nuanced, confident performance that reflects a keen understanding of the character and his position within society. His portrayal is deeply moving and leans towards the realism end of the theatrical spectrum.

At the opposite end, Catherine Davies’ take on Nerissa is a clowning side-kick who revels in the opportunity to don the garb of the ‘superior’ sex and to encourage the audience to cheer for her fellow Christians. Her performance feels at odds with Butel’s, but it certainly elevates the scenes between Nerissa and Jessica Tovey’s Portia, who is a little too frenetic and lacks the poise commonly associated with the role. Even though she steals nearly every scene, you can’t help but enjoy Davies’ enthusiasm and physical talents.

Also pushing the hammy angle is Jacob Warner, who plays Launcelot. He has a great sense of timing and keeps the audience giggling throughout. Eugene Giledder is similarly over-the-top as Arragon and leaves you wanting more of this relatively incidental character.

The remainder of the cast fall closer to Davies’ ultra-expressiveness than to Butel’s subtlety. Which is problematic, because it makes the piece feel unbalanced. It’s not so much the question of whether this is meant to be a comedy or otherwise, but at what level the performances are meant to be pitched. It’s a factor not helped by Jo Turner, who, as Antonio, seems permanently lost and a little expressionless. Turner does not seem to have a good grasp on his character and his motivation, or if he does, he’s hiding it from the audience.

Sarks has tried to let the text do the talking, making very little use of props and furniture. Most scenes, particularly towards the end, are played out centre-stage, with the actors all standing around flourishing their hands to drive home the point of the dialogue. It’s not the most dynamic of staging, and has the effect of making the work feel like it still has a little way to go before it’s ready for an audience.

Where she does succeed is to pull out the comedy (in fact, the audience is reminded by the LED sign in the front corner of the stage that this is the Comedic Historie of the Merchant of Venice), drawing on hammy, physical gags to bring the laughs. Sarks doesn’t go so far as to make this a farce (and you won’t see an obvious pop-culture reference of Donald Trump’s portrait pulled from the silver casket to represent ‘The Fool’) but does encourage her actors to deliver huge facial expressions and gestures. You can’t help but laugh at these overt reactions, but they are not delivered effectively by the entire cast, which makes the production feel unbalanced.

Michael Hankin’s set and costume design add to this unfinished atmosphere. Reminiscent of a rehearsal space, the stage is predominantly bare, save for some generic black benches, and an oddly realistic tree. The actors perch on these benches while they await their cues, at times observing the action and at others seemingly lost in their own characters’ thoughts. Nestled behind the benches are racks of costumes (mostly modern suits and other tailored items) which are used by the actors throughout the performance. The backdrop is the cleverest piece of design; a full length metallic curtain which is lit differently at periodic moments to reflect the gold, silver and lead caskets.

What isn’t so clever is borrowing a trick from another show and failing to make it a success. Those that saw STC’s epic production of all of Shakespeare’s War of the Roses plays in 2009 will recall the divisive stage effect that topped and tailed the work: a veritable torrent of golden confetti falling on stage in the opening act, reflected by a correspondingly cataclysmic rain of black confetti at the end of Richard III. Sarks and Hankin have employed a similar effect in this production, but to a lesser degree and arguably to a lesser effect. The falling yellow flakes at the start of this Merchant create a delightful Autumnal backdrop and a helpful coverage of debris that enhances the wind effect used mid-play. However, the black confetti that begins to drift softly to the stage floor about 10 minutes from the final curtain adds nothing to the storyline or the subtext. Mostly, it’s just distracting.

Ultimately, this production is enjoyable and easy to watch. But it probably won’t cause you to leap from your seat to give a standing ovation or to ponder the complexity of the world in which we live. Which is a bit of a shame.

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The Merchant of Venice is on at the Sydney Opera House Playhouse until 26th November. For tickets, go here.

Photo credit: Prudence Upton. The reviewer attended opening night, Thursday 26th October.