BWW Review: Bell Shakespeare's THE MERCHANT OF VENICE
Never has a 400 year old Shakespearean play been more apt and timely. Bell Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, directed by Anne-Louise Sarks, confronts racism in all its forms, spinning traditional interpretations of the famous character Shylock on their heads. Sarks has presented an important piece of theatre with commentary on how racism affects both business and pleasure.
Perfectly holding a magnifying glass up to privilege, sexuality, and prejudice, The Merchant of Venice raises questions around choice and human nature, like revenge versus compassion, and tolerance versus hate. The social commentary is just as relevant as ever, if not more so.
Leaving the audience questioning who the real villain of the piece is, the cast assembled are beyond reproach. Jo Turner's Antonio is marvellously nuanced, with a hidden battle with sexuality, literally putting his life on the line. Turner effortlessly swings from victim to villain and back, raising important questions about acceptance of self and peers.
Jessica Tovey is commanding as Portia, a woman conflicted for being denied the right to choose a husband. Tovey is perfectly partnered with Catherine Davies as Nerissa, both playing strong female characters, who are wonderfully revered for being just that.
Rounding out the female cast is Felicity McKay as Jessica, the daughter of Jewish moneylender Shylock, who conveys a layered and sweet performance, ending with a juxtaposing moment of poignant heartbreak at the end of the story.
Damien Strouthos is delightful as the love struck Bassiano, who gets a taste of how the other half live as he moves up in class and also presents a question of perspective to the audience. Is he naive? Or is money more important to him than love? An exemplary performance of a complex character.
Cutting through the troubling social commentary are some truly exceptional comedic performances by Fayssal Bazzi as Gratiano, Eugene Gilfedder as Arragon/Tubal/Duke, Shiv Palekar as Morocco, and Jacob Warner as Launcelot.
The standout performance of the show is unequivocally Mitchell Butel as Shylock, a man beaten down with the receipt of constant abuse of all intensities. From witless jokes and passing comments, to being spat on and violently stripped of his identity, Butel is quite simply magnificent in this role. From his quiet emotional presence to his tragically harrowing heartbreak, Butel's performance is just remarkable.
Sarks' interpretation of Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice is thought-provoking and admirable, especially in such a troubling time. It is a performance that raises questions and circumstances that need to be considered and discussed, now more than ever.
The production is on at the Arts Centre Melbourne from 19-30 July, bookings at 1300 182 183 or artscentremelbourne.com.au.
The production will tour to 27 different stages across Australia.
For more information, visit bellshakespeare.com.au