Friday, 18 June 1999

The Merchant of Venice , 18 June 1999

By William Shakespeare

Bell Shakespeare Company at Atheneaum 1, until 3 July, 1999

It is certainly a novelty to witness a production of Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice riddled with adolescent jokes, sexual innuendo and anachronistic costumes. The novelty rapidly wears thin.

Fortunately, the final acts lean less heavily on silliness and Richard Wherrett's direction has greater consistency. This is not to suggest that injecting The Merchant with surprises and highlighting its humour is a mistake.

The problem is that the production has no coherent vision and is dominated by often inappropriately wacky character interpretations and very uneven acting ability. It lacks charismatic performances but has a number of funny cameos.

  The staging is confined by a very beautiful beaten metallic design that, however, makes the space inflexible for action.

Bell's first, more successful production of Merchant expanded the potentially homo-erotic relationship between Antonio and Bassanio. In this production, the idea is clumsily wrought with a kiss occurring too late in the play.

Shylock, (Percy Sieff) a moneylender, advances 3000 ducats to Antonio (Graham Harvey), the merchant of the title. Antonio, against his principles, is borrowing against prospective income to subsidise his friend, Bassanio (Rhett Walton). It all ends in tears - for Shylock.

Shylock is a Jew, spurned by Venetians for his usury. Sieff gives a sound and substantial performance. He plays Shylock with an edge of fragility and uncertainty arising from his persecution by Venetians who have no comprehension of his race nor of his business. This nervousness balances Shylock's vengeful passion to exact his due from Antonio when the loan cannot be repaid.

The sub-plots concern attitudes to romance and the role of women. Portia, Bassanio's chosen love, is a spirited, intelligent young woman who must disguise herself as a man to be heard in court.

As Portia, Odile Le Clezio was disappointingly shallow, racing through dialogue and demonstrating little of the magnetism that would allow her to dominate the courtroom.

Although Shylock appears in only five scenes, his character and predicament provide the spine. He forces us to address racism, alienation, loss and revenge.

This modern audience, versed in prejudice, must consider injustice from two diametrically opposed positions. Shylock has a right to his day in court and to payment of his bond: "a pound of flesh". But does he have the right to take a life in order to appease his rage at being alienated?

By Kate Herbert

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