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The Merchant of Venice

Genesian Theatre presents THE MERCHANT OF VENICE by William Shakespeare at the Genesian Theatre, 420 Kent St, Sydney.
In the ‘dark’ week of production at Belvoir, as the Downstairs Theatre is not utilised for outside productions, and so nothing was on in their spaces, and the Sydney Theatre Company had not any ‘mainstream’ performances in any of their usual venues for three weeks, (the major subsidised company in Sydney not showing work for three weeks – how can that BE?), and as I had seen the Darlinghurst and Griffin shows, when looking at the guide of What’s On in the newspaper I came across THE MERCHANT OF VENICE. I had heard that the young director Constantine Costi had recently given a play by Moliere a decent burl – hard to do, I reckon – I thought I would go and look see and catch this work – it meant that I wouldn’t have to read the play this year, I could see it. Besides, other than in drama schools, I have never seen this play staged.
“THE MERCHANT OF VENICE is a troubling play. At the end, you may not know whether you’ve seen a tragedy or a comedy, a love story or a tale of hate. In its infinite ambiguity, it is quintessential Shakespeare. No sooner have you reached one conclusion about the play than it’s immediately contradicted in the next scene -or line.” [1]
Bassanio (Stephen Lloyd Coombs) borrows three thousand ducats from Shylock (Geoff Sirmai), a Hebrew usurer, and offers Antonio (Andrew Fraser), a Christian merchant as bond. Antonio agrees that if he can’t meet the payment, Shylock is entitled to cut a pound of flesh from his side. Later, when Antonio can’t pay him back, Shylock demands his due. By the letter of the law, however, if Shylock is to have his pound of flesh he must not have one drop of blood or he will forfeit all. Not possible. Antonio is not cut and Shylock is further punished by the authorities of the Duke of Venice, by the seizing of all his property and seeking his execution unless he converts to Christianity, this seen, in Elizabethan times, as an act of mercy to the otherwise damned Jew, Shylock.
The Jew in Elizabethan times, is the abhorred ‘other’, the villain (as is the Moor in Othello) and was played with all the exaggerations of a stage-devil’s hallmarks of make-up and costume. The Christians seen as the models of lives well lived. Since the Holocaust Shylock has been more often portrayed as “more sinned against than sinned” and the Christian merchants and their society as spoiled, venal and callow. The play is not pro-Jewish, as some would have it, but it’s not pro-Christian either. It will all depend on how the director chooses to look at it.
Chronologically, THE MERCHANT OF VENICE is written after, LOVE LABOUR’S LOST, ROMEO AND JULIET and A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM. And although ROMEO AND JULIET is a tragedy it is a romantic one. For what is interesting, given the above breakdown of the more famous part of THE MERCHANT OF VENICE, is that it is in the reality of the experience of the play simply a sub-plot to the romantic comedy of the lovers plots: that of Arragon, Morocco, Bassanio and Portia and Lorenzo and Jessica that dominates the principal action. Although the part that Jessica, Shylock’s daughter, plays in that romantic comedy connects to the tragedy of her father terribly.
Certainly in this production by Mr Costi it is the “glitzy technicoloured and delirious city” of a 1960’s Venice that we are thrown into. Hawaiian shirts and trendy fashions of that period are deliciously created (Costume Designer, Alice Joel) set in a striped back, naked stage of the theatre with some busy light bulb signage spelling out the city’s name in a soft focused and warm coloured lighting design (Michael Schell) accompanied by jazzy music and compositions (not credited) and updating of some of the action of the material (the choice of the marriage boxes as a game show). It is a colour version, perhaps of the Fellini LA DOLCE VITA Italy, or, considering the FRUG choreography of this company’s parties, a little bit the Italian nightclub from SWEET CHARITY (it, being a parody of the Fellini, if you remember).
The world of this production is at the business end of town, merchants of commerce, whilst gambling on the commodity market, gambolling in the good life of youthful, carefree hedonism, full tilt. The Christian leaders caught up in their romantic pursuits become, in the need to sustain the wealth to live their life style (especially the venal Bassanio who uses both the wealth of his best friend Antonio (unto his pound of flesh) to acquire the wealth [love] of the heiress, Portia) becoming progressively uglier in the actions that they pursue against Shylock. As Shylock is stripped of his dues, at the loss of his daughter, he becomes more strident, more ” fundamentalist” in his arguments for revenge, as do the Christians become ruthless “fundamentalists’ in their treatment of the Jew. Both using religion as a tool, a disguise for money pursuit. “Is the genteel Gentile any different from that shyster Shylock? The Christian likes money as much as the Jew; he just doesn’t care to earn it, preferring instead to borrow or marry it.”
The company of actors are comely, enthusiastic and thankfully, uniformly intelligent. Easy to watch and listen too (bar the occasional shouting). Mr Costi has inspired and guided these young performers into a cogent and clear delivery of the Shakespearean text. True, if I wanted to be tougher, the company, including, some of the clunky staging in the larger group scenes by the director, make errors of judgement but they are ‘juvenile ‘ mistakes. There are clear signs of a clever director’s eye for detail and shaping of tempo in the production brio.
Geoff Sirmai as Shylock gives a focused and organised reading and is a worthy balance to the others, his adversaries. Stephen Lloyd Coombs, Ray Mainsbridge, Brendan Cain(Lorenzo) and Harriet Gordon Anderson (Jessica) do well. Andrew Fraser in the notoriously difficult role of the Merchant of Venice (Antonio) is playing at something but does not quite make his idea or purpose clear- it falls between a self indulgence and an original take on the part. The vocal hesitations and textual breakup is cumulatively tedious and ultimately frustrating.
This was a pleasure to attend and was an engaging interaction with the text. This theatre was full. I had to wait to see if a ticket was available. I understand the whole season has been a blockbuster. This was not a school audience either, rather, a good cross section of ages.
Mr Costi may be someone to keep an eye on. Perhaps it runs in the family for on the night I saw it, his brother, the Assistant Director, Michael Costi, at short notice, covered for an indisposed member of the cast and gave a very lively, charming and clear performance. In fact charm, intelligence and joy are what this cast exuded for us.
Shakespeare well served.
  1. The Friendly Shakespeare by Norrie Epstein – Penguin Books 1993.
  2. The Meaning of Shakespeare by Harold C. Goddard – The University of Chicago 1951.