York Theatre, Seymour Centre, Chippendale
Directed by Richard Cottrell
Season: 22-30 May
Shakespeare has likely made the most formidable literary contribution to our understanding of the human condition and other universal issues, relevant even 400 years after the playwright put pen, or quill, to paper. The Merchant of Venice does not disappoint in this regard. Furthermore, neither does Sport for Jove’s production. Directed by the distinguished Richard Cottrell, the production achieves a fine balance between the comedic and tragic elements of Shakespeare’s work, privileging neither one nor the other, and successfully engages the audience to deal with the issues at hand. Each member of the cast shines in their respective roles, and when pieced together with the design elements, vitality is breathed into Shakespeare’s work. It sure is a treat to see the work come to life.
The Merchant of Venice examines human willingness to take risk, the erroneous categorisation of humans in society and the desperate attempts to flee from one’s identity for fear of the harm and loss that could ensue. Bassanio loves Portia, but hasn’t the money to travel to her and declare this love. His great friend, Antonio, out of love and friendship for Bassanio, offers to act as a loan guarantor so that Bassanio can borrow money from Shylock, a Jew. Antonio does this in spite of previously antagonising Shylock with anti-Semitic remarks and lending out money at low-interest rates. Shylock agrees to do so, on the condition that if Antonio cannot repay the debt, he must pay with a pound of flesh. Antonio agrees. Meanwhile, Portia is bound to her father’s will which dictates her husband should be chosen by selecting the correct of three caskets. The proceedings culminate in a courtroom drama, whereby women dress as men in attempt to rescue Antonio from the fate of his unpaid debt.
Cottrell achieves a delicate equilibrium in the work by surrounding grave occurrences and issues with high-spirited humour and jest. The Merchant of Venice has been regarded as one of Shakespeare’s ‘problem comedies’ or as a ‘tragicomedy’, as it doesn’t fit the standard criteria for a comedy due to its inclusion of serious, or tragic, subject matter. By presenting tragedy alongside comedy in a balanced manner, the audience isn’t immediately confronted with the dark qualities of the play. Rather, they are amused whilst the severity of interplaying forces at work is left to marinate over time in the minds of the audience, provoking further consideration.
In the midst of flourishing romantic relationships between three couples, Jessica’s loving sentiments for Lorenzo, a Christian, are fraught with her desire to escape her Jewish identity. Jessica, acted by Lucy Heffernen, is continually portrayed as an outsider, standing on the skirts of matters proceeding on stage. In spite of some beautiful loving scenes between her and Lorenzo, acted by Jason Kos, the audience is stuck with the sense that Jessica’s attempts to alter her identity are futile, and she is rather mired in an ‘in-between’ state. This is perpetuated by the final moment of the play, as the audience is left alone with Jessica on stage, an intimate moment of melancholy as the remainder of the cast exit the space in jubilance. The notion that changing identity for the sake of social acceptance is useless is reinforced by Antonio’s commissioning of Shylock to become a Christian. Whilst he responds, “I am content”, the audience bears witness to no sign that a transformation as occurred. John Turnbull, as Shylock, performed the “Hath Not a Jew Eyes?” speech with incredible vigour and passion. The alignment of Christians and Jews and thus the implicit call to disregard rigid religious categorisation and conflict remains immensely relevant in a contemporary world where violent conflict between religious groups powers forth. Turnbull’s performance struck a chord with everyone in the audience, I am sure.
The cast gave such an exquisite performance as an ensemble, I don’t have the space required to write what is deserved of each actor. Notably, Lizzie Schebesta’s leading female performance as Portia was striking, as well as Christopher Stalley’s depiction of his persevering love as Bassanio. James Lugton achieved an expression of deep love for his friend, as Antonio, and additionally a palpable grief and resignation to his fate as he owed a pound of flesh to Shylock. Damien Strouthos, as Gratiano, contributed to the merry and mirthful comedy central to this work, as did Aaron Tsindos as the delightful Prince of Morocco.
A prominent creative decision in this production was to set the story in the 1920s, expressed through set, costume and sound design. The shift of time setting didn’t feel at all out of place, rather allowing the audience and actors to indulge in the romance and scandal that permeated the golden age. Anna Gardiner’s costume and set design was stunning, and allowed for a more intriguing reinvention of Shakespeare’s work, and worked in accordance with David Stalley’s sound design.
It is a gift to see Cottrell artfully bring Shakespeare’s work to life on an Australian stage. Evidently, this Sport for Jove production illustrates that pertinent themes over 400 years ago are no less relevant today. Thus, we must ask ourselves, do we not listen to what art has been repeatedly telling us? And what will occur if we falter in reinventing classic and relevant works to speak to a contemporary heart? Sport for Jove persists in bringing these works to the stage, and the Merchant of Venice is one we should give heed.