I somehow managed to miss The Bond when it premiered in 2005. Stephen Drover’s 75-minute one-act adaptation of The Merchant of Venice subsequently garnered seven Jessie Award nominations, and from this remount in Richmond’s Gateway Studio it’s easy to see why. A strong story, pared to its bare bones, is made even stronger. Excellent acting, imaginative direction, and just enough production values give this show terrific impact.
Drover has cut away Shakespeare’s comic courtship plot—all but one delicious scene in which Portia (Sarah Rodgers at her most delightful) mocks her gallery of suitors, sharing their photos and resumes with the audience; and a sexy interlude between Portia and her chosen one, Bassanio (Jonathon Watton in a solid performance).
Otherwise the focus is entirely on the Shylock-Antonio pound of flesh plot, with Portia in disguise as a young male legal scholar running the trial, and the verdict handed down by the Duke of Venice (Peter Wilson). Designer Francesca Albertazzi puts the characters in modern dress on a simple, bare stage with a few contemporary pieces of furniture. John Popkin’s sharply focused lighting helps up the dramatic ante.
But besides the cuts, Drover doesn’t tamper with Shakespeare’s dialogue. As director, he underlines the homosocial affection between Antonio and Bassanio with some exuberant hugging, but that subtext is clear in the original. Otherwise, there’s no attempt to update or draw contemporary parallels with Shakespeare’s story.
At the centre of that story is the problematic character of Shylock, given a tremendously powerful and affecting performance here by Todd Thomson. Without ever feeling exaggerated, Thomson plays Shylock at the outer limits of the character’s range. He’s absolutely gleeful at being asked for a loan by Antonio (Andrew Smith), who has mocked and insulted him and his religion, and proposes the pound of flesh as bond and forfeit as if it were a joke. We see his fury at learning that his daughter has eloped with a Christian and taken his jewels to boot, and his glee again when he hears that Antonio is unlikely to be able to repay the loan.
It’s in the courtroom that Thomson really turns up the jets under Shylock. He stalks the room like a caged animal who can’t wait to rip into his prey, roaring his insistence, “I will have my bond!” And when the tables are turned, and he becomes the one who has to forfeit everything—pride, wealth, and even his religion—Thomson’s Shylock swallows his abjection with such horror that you can almost see it burning inside him, as if he were going to melt. It’s an altogether mesmerizing performance.
Rodgers’ Portia, Smith’s Antonio, and Wilson’s Duke all do excellent work in this scene to creep us out with a sense of their world’s casually brutal and blatant anti-Semitism. What I came away from this production most impressed with was not Shylock’s “Hath not a Jew eyes” or Portia’s “The quality of mercy is not strained,” but rather the way Shylock is squeezed dry by his inquisitors’ efficient Christian justice.
The Bond doesn’t come down clearly on one side or the other of the question of whether Shakespeare’s play is anti-Semitic or anti-anti-Semitic. What it gives us is an ugly, complicated Shylock who might be either villain or anti-hero, and a set of attractive anti-heroic antagonists whose villainy might be more insidious yet.