—Portia (Lindsey Angell) in THE MERCHANT OF VENICE, 2011 Photo: David Cooper
THE MERCHANT OF VENICE
Bard on the Beach has now opened all four of its Shakespeares in this most unseasonable Vancouver summer, its 22nd. In the studio tent Bob Frazer offers one of the year’s creepiest and most accomplished performances, playing crooked Richard III as a kind of diabolically charming lethal insect. In the new, enlarged mainstage tent Lois Anderson is a delightful Rosalind in As You Like It. But for my money the all-around best of this season’s Bards is The Merchant of Venice.
Shakespeare’s most controversial play, Merchant is often called anti-Semitic for its portrayal of Shylock, the Jewish moneylender who threatens to cut a pound of flesh from Christian merchant Antonio when he defaults on a loan. Director Rachel Ditor and her excellent cast provide a supremely intelligent reading of the play that skilfully modulates between comedy and tragedy, leaving you feeling a little sickened at the end, not sure which characters to love or loathe.
Surprisingly, Shakespeare’s Merchant is mostly romantic comedy. Antonio (Duncan Fraser) has borrowed money from Shylock (Richard Newman) to help his young friend Bassanio (Charlie Gallant) woo the heiress Portia (Lindsey Angell). Portia’s late father has decreed that she must marry whichever suitor wins a bizarre guessing game. The Princes of Morocco (Luc Roderique) and Aragon (John Murphy) come a-courting in hilarious ways, especially Murphy’s moustachioed Aragon with his thick Cathtilian accthen and insistent lute-playing servant (Kayvon Khoshkam).
Bassanio eventually wins the game and Portia. But things turn darker when Shylock’s daughter Jessica (Luisa Jojic) joins the lovers, betraying her father by running off with Christian boyfriend Lorenzo (Sebastian Kroon).
Feeling now that he has nothing more to lose, Shylock would gladly slice the heart out of Antonio, symbol of all the Venetian Christians who despise “the Jew.” Newman’s deeply human Shylock is stubborn, proud, angry and vindictive. We’re glad at first when Portia, disguised as a male lawyer, turns the tables on him. But after preaching justice and mercy (“The quality of mercy is not strained”), she icily pronounces a verdict on Shylock so unjust and unmerciful that when Antonio dictates a final indignity for Shylock, the audience gasps in disbelief.
The scene is so chilling and the actors, especially veterans Fraser and Newman, operate in such high gear as to make the romantic resolution that follows feel almost superficial—until Fraser’s Antonio, alone on stage, delivers one last powerful twist.
Bard’s treats are always partly visual. With Ditor setting this Merchant in 1870s Italy, designer Mara Gottler dresses the men in elegant Early Godfather and Portia in a series of gorgeous gowns. And when Shylock intones “Hath not a Jew eyes” as he stands under a mottled sky of sunset-tinged clouds against a backdrop of North Shore mountains, you know you’re getting that nowhere-else-in-the-world Bard on the Beach experience.