Friday, August 16, 2013

Review: (Stratford) The Merchant of Venice

Scott Wentworth (photo by David Hou)

Then must the Jew be merciful?
Stratford’s Merchant of Venice tries too hard to deal with an unforgiving play
by Stuart Munro

I’m finishing my series of opening nights at Stratford with the Festival’s new production of The Merchant of Venice. The second offering this season from Artistic Director Antoni Cimolino, Merchant is another of those well known plays with which I wasn’t too familiar. And while there are several strong moments, this production ultimately falls a little flat.

A large part of the problem is the play itself. Classically thought of as a comedy, Merchant’s anti-Semitism has become more complicated over the centuries, turning it into one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays.” To overcome this, directors often bend over backwards in an attempt to transform Shylock from the comic villain he was written as to a sympathetic, misunderstood antagonist. This results, however, in a woefully unbalanced plot and two separate storylines that are absolutely out of synch with one another – the comic love stories of Bassanio and Portia, Lorenzo and Jessica, and Gratiano and Nerissa; and the more intense story of Shylock demanding his pound of flesh from the eponymous merchant, Antonio.

Likewise, Charlotte Dean’s gorgeous costumes easily set the locale in 1930s Italy, aided by Keith Thomas’s original music.

I was fortunate enough to be joined on opening night by a good friend and Shakespeare expert who pointed out that crucial pieces of dialogue had been excised from the text in order to make Shylock that much more likeable, and as portrayed by Scott Wentworth, this certainly comes across – his delivery of arguably the play’s most famous speech, “Hath not a Jew eyes? . . . If you prick us, do we not bleed?” was powerful beyond words. But by the play’s near climax in the courtroom, it becomes clear that, along with Shylock, almost none of these characters (all of them obsessed with their own kinds of revenge, punishment and theophobia) are likeable people. 

It’s the comedy that works best in this production, exemplified perfectly by Antoine Yared’s turn as the Prince of Arragon. His brief scene, two-thirds into the first half, was the first time I felt myself really engaged by any of the action on the stage, and the audience absolutely ate him up. Likewise, Michelle Giroux as Portia and Jonathan Goad as Gratiano both excel with their comic work. Ms. Giroux has an especially impressive turn as a Doctor of the Law late in the second half, and her interpretation of the play’s second most famous speech – “The quality of mercy is not strain'd, It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven . . . It is an attribute to God himself. . . .” – left me with chills. Others, however, such as Tyrell Crews’s Bassiano and Sara Farb’s Jessica fall flat most of the time, almost as if they were simply going through the motions and the text.

The design elements are quite strong – Douglas Paraschuk’s simple set of wrought-iron gates easily allows the action to move from place to place, and makes full use of the Tanya Moiseiwitsch stage. Likewise, Charlotte Dean’s gorgeous costumes easily set the locale in 1930s Italy, aided by Keith Thomas’s original music.

Director Antoni Cimolino makes some good choices with this production. The decision to set the play in 1930s Italy, against the backdrop of Hitler’s growing power, makes good sense given the material; and there are real moments of pathos surrounding Shylock’s forced conversion (there are two moments involving his kippah that had the audience audibly gasp). But the difficulties surrounding any modern production of this play are, perhaps, too large to overcome. The fact is this: Merchant depends on the anti-Semitism of both its characters and its audience. Removing the latter from the equation destroys any chance the play has of making sense. I sympathize and understand many of Cimolino’s choices to treat Shylock compassionately. But the result is a play with two disparate halves that don’t mesh very well. It may be that this play is best left on the page where it can be appropriately studied as an outdated product of its time.

The Merchant of Venice runs to October 18

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