Theatre Review: Bell Shakespeare's Magnificent Merchant of Venice
The Merchant of Venice is perhaps one of Shakespeare’s most challenging plays for modern audiences. The stance it expresses on Judaism remains a highly-contested point of discussion, and its themes of mercy and justice and religious intolerance keep audiences on their toes even today. That said, Bell Shakespeare have managed to deliver a sensitive, engrossing and downright funny adaptation of this controversial play.
Director Anne-Louise Sarks and the creative team took an interesting approach to the play’s production, favouring an eclectic approach drawing from an array of periods and theatre styles. The stage was arranged into a semi-circle, bordered by chairs, with the few set changes instigated by the performers. Location changes were heralded by a neon sign located downstage right. Meanwhile, actors who were not in the scene taking place were either changing costume (onstage) or standing in tableaux, scattered around the chairs. Lighting and sound was also used minimally, but when they were utilised it was to perfectly amplify moments of tension and action, feeling even more epic thanks to the otherwise uncluttered line of attack.
But despite the odd moment of anticipation, The Merchant of Venice is a Shakespearian comedy, and was wonderfully treated as such. While many of the jokes in a Shakespeare script can often be lost in translation, the cast were brilliantly adept at communicating their meaning through physicality and vocal delivery, lending plenty of moments of uproarious laughter. Physical humour was often favoured by the team, performed with particular notoriety by Catherine Davies as Nerissa and Jacob Warner as Launcelot; two comic-relief characters that still got their moments of emotional depth. The company seemed to take a liberal approach to adaptation at times- I can’t imagine there being many middle-fingers or “YEAH GIRL”-s in Elizabethan times, but aren’t we all the better for it. Another striking shift was given to the finale which, without spoiling anything for those unfamiliar, brought the darker side of the play’s themes to the forefront with just a few tweaks of the script, stellar acting by Felicity McKay as Jessica and some choice lighting and sound.
The casting was another element done to perfection. Mitchell Butel managed to perfectly balance his character’s sympathetic and infuriating tendencies as Shylock, highlighted by his take on the famous “hath not a Jew eyes?” monologue. Likewise, Jessica Tovey shined as the ever-loveable Portia, and Jo Turner, Damien Strouthos, Fayssal Bazzi, Shiv Palekar and Eugene Gilfedder rounded out the cast with their charming, enthralling adaptations of Antonio (the titular Merchant), Bassanio, Gratiano, Lorenzo and Arragon (and others), respectively. The way the play flowed so smoothly, it almost seemed like they were reading each other’s minds.
Regardless of if you have a penchant to Shakespeare or not, The Merchant of Venice is a resoundingly successful adaptation that never lags or outlives its welcome. Of course, you would expect as much from the consistently-acclaimed Bell Shakespeare.
The Merchant of Venice plays at the Heath Ledger Theatre at the State Theatre Centre in Perth until August 12, before heading to Kalgoorlie. Tickets and more details can be found HERE.