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BWW REVIEW: Current And Captivating, Bell Shakespeare's THE MERCHANT OF VENICE Shines A Spotlight On Racism And Hypocrisy.

BWW REVIEW: Current And Captivating, Bell Shakespeare's THE MERCHANT OF VENICE Shines A Spotlight On Racism And Hypocrisy.

Thursday 26th October 2017, The Playhouse, Sydney Opera House

Reinterpreting William Shakespeare's 16th Century classic for a modern generation that seeks tolerance and acceptance, Anne-Louise Sarks (Director) presents a more balanced portrayal of THE MERCHANT OF VENICE. Interpreted to be relevant and accessible, this contemporary expression continues Bell Shakespeare's vision of bring live theatre to a wider audience whilst it engages on a personal level to enable new audiences to connect to the work.

Whilst many may have studied THE MERCHANT OF VENICE at some point, it was often presented as a comedy with a lesson in Christian mercy and an anti-Semitic judgement against Jewish moneylender who was unfairly categorised as greedy and vengeful, or at least this was the case for the BWW Sydney reviewer. Sarks moves away from this outdated reading and shows that all the characters are neither completely good or bad, each having a complexity that makes them flawed and culpable in the wrongs that are done to one another. She highlights the dreadful racism, prejudice and hypocrisy that had for many years gone unchecked and at times even exploited for various political aims and even formed the stereotype of how Jewish people were portrayed.

Set and Costume Designer Michael Hankin has opted for a contemporary styling with a minimalist set of a solitary tree, an arc of benches flanking a wheeled sideboard, all in front of a gold backdrop. A LED sign indicates the changes in location and a multitude of fans help intensify Shylock's dispair whilst a flutter of orange leaves indicates the autumnal season but the flutter of black confetti during the trial remained unexplained. Hankin has dressed Portia and Nerissa in simple dresses of innocent white and loyal blue respectively to convey their position in society whilst not being tied to any particular fashion era. Jessica's smock dress and blouse positions her as the Venetian moneylender's daughter and of a lower social rank than the ladies of Belmont. The mens' suits could be drawn from the early 20th Century or a more contemporary sartorial style of the modern hipster, again keeping the time setting ambiguous. Shylock and Tubal are kept outside of the Merchant's circle with more conservative attire of black suits with the moneylender also bearing the traditional religious symbols that form part of his identity and make the callous removal even more shocking.

As the merchant Antonio and his friends Bassiano, Gratiano and Lorenzo, Jo Turner, Damien Strouthos, Anthony Taufa and Shiv Palekar present cocky confident men, comfortable with their privaledge as memors of the majority, Christian men in a Christian dominated society. The each exhibit the constant racisim and unchristian behaviour to anyone not considered their equal with an apparently unwarranted juvenile venom, further making Shylock's desire for revenge even more justifiable. Turner presents the older bachelor's friendship with Bassiano with the devotion of a loyal companion with the allusion to a desire for more without addressing the question explicitly. He ensures that the barbs that Antonio fires at Shylock, particularly when his life rests in the lender's decision, make the merchant's behaviour even more reprehensible, ensuring that the audience find it impossible to feel much pity for Antonio.

As the heiress Portia, Jessica Tovey captures the spirit of the young woman unsatisfied that her fate rests in riddles at the behest of her deceased father, robbing her of the ability to choose her own mate and marry for love. She conveys Sarks' commentary that women are more than possessions and are capable of independent thought whilst also exhibiting the manipulative cunning of the feminine that uses humiliation for sport. As Portia's loyal friend Nerissa, Catherine Davies has opted to give the offsider a more casual, younger expression with the inflections and physicality of a hyperactive, overenthusiastic millennial, drawing out as much of the smaller role as possible.

As Shylock's disloyal servant Launcelot, Jacob Warner enhances the comedy of the play, particularly through his physicality and comic timing. The clown of the piece is presented with an endearing bumbling buffoonery that helps the audience sympathise with the bossed boy whilst realising that he, like the rest of the characters, is ultimately driven by money.

Whilst the performances are of a high standard across the cast, it is however Mitchell Butel's performance as Shylock that stands out as the most compelling with its honesty and depth. Butel allows Shylock to brush off some of the vitriol aimed at him and his challenge with daughter Jessica by employing his characteristic comic timing and fabulous physicality. He allows the audience to see Shylock as an older, somewhat frail man, used to the abuse from a society that refuses to show him any respect. Butel ensures that Shylock is not seen as evil as previous interpretations have chosen to view the outsider, but rather a complex character that has good and bad qualities, all driven by other factors. He delivers Shylock's monologue with a new depth and understanding that calls out the Christian's prejudice and hypocrisy more clearly whilst highlighting the part they play in eliciting the response Shylock returns their hatred with.

This is a superbly executed new interpretation of a work many would think they are familiar with. Whether you have seen many versions of this Shakespearian classic or you want your first bite of the Bard, this is a must see as it makes the 400 year old work relevant for the 21st century and finally balances the scales of justice, calling out the racism, prejudice, manipulation and antiquated views on women.


Playhouse Sydney Opera House

24 October - 26 November 2017

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