The Merchant of Venice review (Bell Shakespeare, Sydney Opera House)

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The Merchant of Venice is a difficult play, for a number of reasons.

Firstly, it defies easy categorisation and flips quickly between the tragic and the comedic. But more importantly, its central narrative of the rich, vengeful Jew, who mercilessly demands a pound of flesh from his enemy, is rather clearly antisemitic.

Antonio (Jo Turner) is a successful merchant who seeks to borrow money to help his good friend Bassanio (Damien Strouthos) woo a wealthy young woman, Portia (Jessica Tovey). He borrows the money from a Jewish moneylender Shylock (Mitchell Butel), who he’s previously been abusive and insulting towards.

Shylock agrees to lend him the money, with the bond set as a pound of Antonio’s flesh, should he default. Antonio is confident that he’ll quickly make back the money he needs to pay Shylock but — big surprise — something goes wrong and that pound of flesh is soon up for grabs.

Shylock is, by most estimations, the villain of the piece, and Shakespeare leans into plenty of antisemitic stereotypes in the construction of this character. In fact, many of the most negative and vile traits of Shylock went on to influence the depiction of Jewish people in Christian literature and art for centuries to follow.

By the same token, Shakespeare shows that Shylock has suffered from exclusion and abuse inflicted upon him by the rest of Venetian society. He also has the wonderful “Hath not a Jew eyes?” speech, which can be read as a clear plea for the rest of society to respect humanity. It features the line “And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?”, which goes some way to explaining Shylock’s attitude toward Antonio and his friends.

There’s constant debate about where Shakespeare and his play stand when it comes to Shylock: does the play have an antisemitic outlook overall, or does it take a more sympathetic approach to Shylock, and attempt to empathise with his position?

This is not a question that will ever be answered definitively, and not really one that need be. What’s more significant is how directors and actors approach the piece and the character, and how they make that world live on stage for audiences.

Director Anne-Louise Sarks has created a clear-eyed reading of the play that throws its focus onto the trauma faced by Shylock as a persecuted outsider. The modern-dress production — played on a mostly empty stage, but for a few clothing racks and benches surrounding the playing space (design Michael Hankin) — never underplays or underestimates the gravity of what these characters face.

Sarks makes smart use of costuming, staging, and Max Lyandvert’s score to punctuate Shylock’s arc and fallen position, as the other characters on stage spit insults and the word “Jew” with brutal force towards him.

At the same time, Sarks’s production is frequently very funny, with the shifts in tone expertly handled by this versatile cast.

Mitchell Butel is note-perfect as Shylock, and brings both sensitivity and a blind fury that can only come from a lifetime of denigration. His ultimate downfall is very moving.

Jessica Tovey displays strong vocal technique in her first professional Shakespeare role as Portia, and bounces back and forth playfully with Catherine Davies, who exploits the role of Nerissa for all its comedic worth.

Damien Strouthos (Bassanio), Anthony Taufa (Gratiano) and Shiv Palekar (Lorenzo) bring a blokey energy as the three Christian friends, while Jo Turner conjures up all of the terror of Antonio facing his violent fate. Eugene Gilfedder transforms effortlessly into a variety of different guises, Felicity McKay makes a big impact with little text as Shylock’s daughter Jessica, and Jacob Warner is a wonderful contemporary clown as Shylock’s clerk Launcelot (not Lancelot).

Some of the comedy doesn’t feel quite as spontaneous as you might hope, but that’s the inevitable result of this production having been on the road since the start of July. On the other hand, the characters feel completely lived-in by this point, and the world of the play is entirely established.

This is one of Bell Shakespeare’s best productions in several years — intelligent, stylish and emotionally resonant — speaking clearly to where we are today. Any production that explores ethno-religious persecution, or prejudice of any kind, remains disturbingly pertinent.

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The Merchant of Venice is at the Playhouse, Sydney Opera House, until November 26. Featured image by Prudence Upton

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