Stratford Festival – The Merchant of Venice

This past Tuesday Sherry and I headed to Stratford to take in a little culture. Typically my first jaunt isn’t this late in the season, but we’ve been kinda busy.

I last saw The Merchant of Venice in 2007 with some friends, and really wasn’t a big fan of that production, so I went in to this performance with fingers mentally crossed.

It’s always interesting to see how and when Shakespeare is staged, and with Merchant you can go really literal, really obscure, or somewhere in between. For this staging it was set in 1930s Italy, which I think worked. It gave the play a strong foundation and mood, and had a certain elegance, but was modern enough to impart the uncomfortable “how did this happen?” feeling, given that the 30s are still living memory for some.

It can also be very easy to stay the play in a way that beats the audience over the head with its politics, since its ethnic, racial, and class themes are so prominent. This makes how the actor playing Shylock approaches the role so pivotal. I’ve seen him played as… whiny, frankly, more than once, and it’s never quite worked for me. Going gentle into that good night and so forth.

The main set piece was a large, two-storey metal piece, with a doorway/gates on the main level, and more shutter-like window openings up top. It was quite attractive and served them well, standing in for everything from a local cafe to Portia’s house to Shylock’s, to the court. The costumes were tailored and fairly richly constructed, since appearing well off was important, whether you actually were or not.

Tom McCamus as Antonio and Scott Wentworth as Skylock were both excellent. They have the presence to pull off these roles, though I would argue that Antonio could have been played even a bit more “grandly”. I felt that there could have been a bit more substance or nuance to Antonio and Bassanio’s relationship. Good friends are good friends, but putting his credit on the line for his friend who’s a known spendthrift, and then seem to be perfectly okay with dying for it? Yeah… I need more convincing. (Like, honestly, if they’d been lovers, it would have made perfect sense, though it would have screwed up the Portia story line just a titch…)

I greatly appreciated that Wentworth played Shylock with a significant amount of “fuck you”. After all, what he endures is long-standing and awful, and pretty much everyone else thinks it’s a-okay. And then when he is thiiiiis close to sweet revenge, they STILL continue to do everything in their power to deny him his just desserts. Ironically, they want him to act “Christian”, when neither he nor they are, frankly.

And then, of course, Shylock is given a choice that’s no choice. And punished on top of that, for daring to not just take their abuse and contempt. This is the stuff that workplace shootings are made of. I thought the moment at the end when Jessica is given her father’s (no longer needed) yarmulke was quite poignant as well.

While his role is a bit over the top and reasonably small, I enjoyed Gratiano as well. It was boisterous without being boorish. I was not a fan of Launcelot Gobbo’s. The whining was a bit excessive, and there was more than a hint of “creeper”.

I also wasn’t a huge fan of Portia’s. I found it interesting that they made her so long in the tooth (particularly for Shakespeare’s era), though I found that at odds with feminist ideas that a woman that age would still consider herself “bound” by her father’s posthumous wishes and will. (Though one has to suspend disbelief that such a decree would ever stand up in court these days…) Her mockery of her suitors also seemed rather juvenile, given her age and station.

Her delivery was what I had the most problem with, as she regularly fell into the “Shakespearean delivery trap”, which has a certain cadence and flow and emphasis that sounds nothing like conversational language. It stuck out and got worse as the play went on.

Overall, though, I found myself engaged the whole way through, which was a little under three hours. The march of fascism as the play progressed worked well to impart an aura of menace without overpowering the rest of the action. I couldn’t really tell from the bit with the radio if it was supposed to be Mussolini or Hitler broadcasting, or one then the other, but it was obvious what the broadcast was in general, and that was enough.

In the end I found myself flashing back to conversations I had 20 years ago when we staged Fiddler on the Roof in high school (which we’re going back to Stratford to see in a couple weeks). I recall the discussions we had about our fictional characters and the coming of the Nazis and WWII and hoping that they got out (emigrated, etc.) I found myself wondering the same about Shylock’s fate, which is evidence as good as any that Cimolino and Co. achieved what they set out to do.

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