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Bell Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice comes to Canberra

Heather Wallace

Shakespeare is timeless, but that doesn’t mean time has stood still.

The joy of watching Shakespeare performed 400 years later is seeing how much his world is like ours. Love, lust, fear and hope all play out on stage, just as they do today, all around us.

Some plays finish on what would have been thought of as a happy ending in the 16th century. Look at them now, though, and the resolution is…not happy.

That’s the challenge Bell Shakespeare faces with The Merchant of Venice, playing at the Canberra Theatre Centre 13 to 21 October.

A quick synopsis:

In Venice, a smart and ambitious—but impoverished—young man, Bassanio (Damien Strouthos), needs money to woo a beautiful heiress, Portia (Jessica Tovey), whom he loves purely and solely for her personality. He borrows money from his rich mate Antonio (Jo Turner), who’s keen on keeping the status quo and not allowing pesky minorities get too successful. The problem is Antonio’s fortunes have dipped, and to help out Bassanio he has to pledge a bond to Shylock (Mitchell Butel), a money lender whose Jewish faith Antonio continually mocks.

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Shylock lends the money on the promise of a pound of Antonio’s flesh if the debt isn’t repaid in time, meaning his life. Meanwhile, Shylock’s daughter, Jessica, has eloped with her boyfriend and the pair join Bassanio on his courting trip to Portia, who frankly is sick of suitors turning up on her doorstep.

Speaking to Jessica Tovey was a chance to ask about performing a story whose racial sentiments are out odds with contemporary life.

“I’m not interested in performing a museum piece, and Othello and Merchant stay relevant,” Jessica explains.

“Anne-Louise Sarks, our director, encourages us to lean in to the darkness of the play, to acknowledge the racism and let the audience make their own judgement on the characters. But it’s also important not to turn Portia into a villain and Shylock into a hero. Both are flawed but they also have great strength.”

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In the course of the play we see Portia go from a romantic trophy to centre stage in a court of law. That she’s posing as a man and is going head-to-head with Shylock, who wants his pound of flesh from Antonio, changes the play from a romantic romp to a court room drama.

“Mitch and I have talked a lot about how similar they are. They both believe in law, they believe in rules and both are hampered by how society sees them,” Jessica says.

I tell her it’s a shame Shakespeare didn’t have them ditch the boys and become business partners. Jessica laughs at the thought. “The play is all about money and deals. By the end of the play you see how smart Portia is. Bassanio betrays a sacred promise he made her and she only forgives him when Antonio pledges his soul to her. It’s crafty and it shows that Portia is actually the greater merchant of the play.”

That’s not to say Jessica isn’t aware of Portia’s dark side. “Portia is often held up as a great female character, but at the end as all the lovers are blissfully happy, all I can see is her terrible flaws as a human for what she’s done to Shylock. There are so many complexities.”

Jessica also sees comparisons between Portia and Shylock’s errant daughter. “They’re both rebelling against their fathers. Put yourself in that other Jessica’s shoes—she has a stern, controlling father and to her the only option is to steal from him and run away.

“Portia has a few more options because of her family’s wealth, but she doesn’t acknowledge that privilege. At the same time, her Achilles heel is her genuine love for Bassanio and even though she forgives his betrayal, her faith in him has been shaken. I don’t think she’d ever really trust him again.”

It’s an interesting thought to end the play on, and another way she’s similar to her nemesis. Both have stirring courtroom speeches full of humanity and pathos, but Shylock is forced to abandon his faith. Shakespeare’s audience would have seen that as a happy ending but it’s one of the elements that stops the play being a frothy love story.

The more I think about it, the more I want to see a follow up…Portia and Shylock: purveyors of social justice. It could be the best buddy film never written.

the essentials

What: Bell Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice
Where: Canberra Theatre Centre
When: 13–21 October. In Conversation with the Director:
Sunday 15 October 1pm – 2pm (free event)
How much: $35-$95, purchase tickets here
Website: canberratheatrecentre.com.au/show/the-merchant-of-venice

All photography: Prudence Upton. All images supplied. 

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Heather Wallace

Heather’s career in arts and heritage PR spans 15 years, with highlights including working for Sean Connery at the Edinburgh International Film Festival and promoting Australia’s World Heritage places. Her blog, Myths and Misadventures, (http://mythsandmisadventures.blogspot.com.au/), is about life lessons we can learn from the Romans. You can follow her on Twitter @Missmythology.

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