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The Merchant of Venice

Richard Newman and Lindsey Angell. Photo by David CooperThe Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare
Directed by Rachel Ditor,
Bard Mainstage, Vanier Park,
June 15 to Sept 23, 2011

Vancouver, BC: Of all the Shakespeare plays I have seen I find The Merchant of Venice to be among the most compelling yet certainly the most disturbing to watch. While taking into account the likelihood that the play's reception by a contemporary audience would be very different from an audience of Shakespeare's own time, the script sets up so many powerful and conflicting issues that one is on a non-stop rollercoaster ride.

It is impossible today not to squirm uncomfortably at the blatant racism and anti-Jewish comments by the distinctly "unchristian" Christians, from the Venetian elites like Antonio and the Duke of Venice to Launcelot, a servant. One can appreciate on an intellectual level the imperative to honour a legal contract and yet simultaneously wonder how an officer of the law would allow such a bond to be written in the first place.  One can feel sympathy with Shylock who is betrayed by his daughter and abused by everyone else, yet be infuriated by his intransigence as he holds out for revenge over repayment.

Charlie Gallant, Ryan Beil, Lindsey Angell and Amber Lewis. Photo by David BlueIn this play, which believe it or not fills the criteria of a comedy, Shakespeare makes concrete a gamut of abstractions: racial, religious and national prejudices, revenge versus mercy, justice versus law. The focus of the conflict is a bond signed between Antonio (Duncan Fraser), the Venetian merchant of the title, and Shylock (Richard Newman), a Jewish moneylender.  Antonio has his money tied up in his ships which he hopes will bring back riches from exotic and far-off lands. So when his high-living friend, Bassanio (Charlie Gallant) needs cash to woo a wealthy heiress, Portia (Lindsey Angell), Antonio has to borrow money from Shylock whom he hates and despises because he is a Jew. Shylock waives interest on the loan, but sets the price of forfeiture as a pound of Antonio's flesh. Later when Antonio is unable to repay the bond because his ships  supposedly have foundered, Shylock demands that the bond be honoured, despite - or perhaps because of - the fact that this would lead to Antonio's death.

Kayvon Khoshkam and John Murphy. Photo by David Blue.Bassanio, with his friend Gratiano (Ryan Beil), has in the meantime set off to Belmont, where Portia is committed to honour her dead father's will by requiring her many suitors to select the casket containing her portrait, from a lead, silver or gold container.  The comedically absurd behaviours of the Moroccan prince (Luc Rodrigues) and the Prince of Aragon (John Murphy) provides further opportunity to mock the habits of foreigners, as Portia and her waiting women Nerissa (Amber Lewis) joke about her suitors. Portia and Nerissa of course fall in love with the Venetians, Bassanio and Gratiano.

Meanwhile Shylock's daughter, Jessica (Luisa Jojic) elopes with Lorenzo (Sebastian Kroon), taking with her money and jewels stolen from her father. Shylock is devastated, as much by the theft of his ducats as by the betrayal and loss of his precious daughter to one of the Christian "gentlemen" who so despise and abuse him. His deep hurt and anger, and his demand for justice culminate in his destruction.

The cast is uncompromising in their performances. Newman shows how Shylock's native intelligence and sense of preservation are swept away by his desire for revenge. Fraser's Antonio oozes a miasma of failure and depression from every pore. Rodrigues and Murphy were hilarious in the courtship scenes as the princes from Morocco and Aragon.

I remember feeling a deep visceral sense of pity for Shylock in the 2003 Bard production of Merchant of Venice which played on one's emotions. In contrast, this production is gritty and intellectual in its honesty. Director Ditor does not attempt to soften the virulence of the anti-semitism. it's right there in your face. But equally Shylock comes across harsher and revengeful rather than wounded.  Rather than end with the happiness of the three young couples, Ditor fittingly gives Antonio, the self-confessed "unhappy subject of  [all the] quarrels", the ultimate scene.  After all, unlike Marlowe's "Jew of Malta", Shakespeare's play is called The Merchant of Venice".  And it should be seen.

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