(A review of The Merchant of Venice, staged recently at Stratford Festival Theatre 2013, Canada)
By Suresh Nellikode
Shylock: I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that. If a Jew wrongs a Christian, what is his humility? Revenge! If a Christian wrongs a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example? Why, revenge! The villainy you teach me I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction.
It was not just the old anti-Semitic comedy, The Merchant of Venice played on the main stage of Stratford Festival, in Canada, recently, but an adeptly remolded play by director Antoni Cimolino. And to a great extent it is supported by Scott Wentworth who enacted the notorious Shylock. To a modern audience, it goes well with the tunes they’re all used to. The biggest complaint and criticism about this Shakespearean comedy, came up as yet, is it’s anti-Semitic. However, one would easily concede that, despite all the shortcomings that had been pitched up earlier, it’s a comedy about anti-Semites and the Christians win eventually.
A person like me who likes to dive into the rustic world of Shakespeare would slightly get disheartened to witness the staging of The Merchant of Venice, realigned to modern age. For a Jew, the law of Venice stipulates to wear a yarmulke of a tawny shade. Due to frequent mistakes in identifying a Jew as a Christian cardinal, it had been changed, as history says. Shakespeare’s Shylock would have been misconstrued if he was not in typical gaberdine and a Shenandoah beard. Here, Antoni Cimolino, the director made Scott Wentworth a well-dressed Jewish moneylender, who would be praised indeed for his sartorial elegance. In short, instead of a cassock with long-hanging sleeves and a leather money pouch you are all looking at a clean shaven Shylock in business suit and a good sense of humour. His comments on Antonio were certainly based on the persecution he endured and a resultant fractured decency, eventually. To add fuel to fire, his beloved daughter Jessica makes away with a fortune and elopes with her Christian lover too.
Venice was of 1930s in this stage production. Scott Wentworth has befittingly lived the role of a Shylock who had been hurt and stoned by the Fascist Blackshirts and street boys, wherever he went. Portia is one of the strong and powerful heroines of Shakespeare. Her acting was strong in the role of the smart lawyer who saves Antonio through the hidden loopholes in the contract and causes Shylock’s downfall. Michelle Giroux deserves three cheers for the role of Portia who in between appears in the guise of the Doctor of Laws. Tyrrel Crews was also cool in his acting style as Bassanio. Tom McCamus as Antonio has stolen the show, next to Wentworth, in his dialogue presentation and improvisation. He willingly as Antonio, removes his shirt and chants Hail Mary by submitting himself to the cruel moneylender’s knife. A moment’s abrupt turn of events saves his life. Anand Rajaram has bravely and touchingly portrayed the role of Salerio.
Pre-war Venice scenes were conjured in fractions of seconds and changed as per the requirements, by Douglas Paraschuk. His Piazza sets with Rialto and eating outlets were wonderful. Robert Thomson’s lighting and Charlotte Dean’s costumes were exceptionally impressive.
As an astoundingly impressive presentation, The Merchant of Venice draws much of its energy from the styles of equally opposing forces. There are two religious faiths. There are two types of profits – one from business and the other from money-lending. The ideals of good service at one end and the modern desire to amass wealth at the other. The hustle and bustle of Venice and the bucolic beauty of Belmont (the name itself denotes Beautiful Mountain). The play eventually challenges us to relook into our attitudes and wonders if we’re as enlightened and polished as we think we are.