The Merchant of Venice

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The Merchant of Venice


Presented by the incomparable Bell Shakespeare and directed by Anne-Louise Sarks with dark humour, the play explores religious persecution, unfounded prejudices and the divide between the haves and the have-nots through the eyes of its key players, Shylock, Portia and Antonio. Originally set in 16th century Venice (known as one of Europe’s financial capitals at the time), the bustling business centre would be akin to Wall Street today.

“I’ve heard people arguing that Shakespeare doesn’t have a place in today’s society. All you have to do is read the play to know that’s not true,” says Jessica Tovey, who plays the role of Portia (a beautiful and perceptive heiress with many suitors) in her first production for Bell Shakespeare.

However, Portia is besotted with Bassanio (played by Damien Strouthos), a noble young Venetian who has more luck with women than money. Having squandered his estate, he calls on his long-time friend Antonio (played by Jo Turner), a successful merchant who has always been financially generous, to spot him the 3,000 ducats he needs in order to present himself as a viable match for Portia.

The trouble begins as Antonio admits all his cash is tied up in his ships and merchandise at sea, and recommends Bassanio approach Shylock (Mitchell Butel), a wealthy, somewhat ostracised Jewish moneylender. Shylock agrees, but only after some meaty conditions. He cautions Bassanio that if the loan isn’t repaid within three months he will take his “pound of flesh” from Antonio’s body.

“Our production is not necessarily trying to make Shylock a sympathetic character, but to understand him from a new psychology. Everything we present is in the text, but we certainly pulled it out a little more,” Tovey says. “Early on in the play, Shylock talks about the fact that these Christians – these Venetians – spit on him, call him a dog, kick him and treat him horrendously. I want audiences to leave thinking about the fact that those who have privilege often persecute those who don’t, and what the consequences of those actions are.”

Under the direction of Sarks, Tovey says she was ecstatic to be chosen to play the role of Portia and has immersed herself in the character. “I was really keen to stretch myself in that way and I know I’m biased, but I personally think Portia is probably Shakespeare’s best written female character. She is very intelligent and very funny, and really drives the second half of the show in a way that she comes out on top. I wouldn’t say that she’s a hero necessarily because she does some questionable things, but she certainly gets what she wants by the end of the play, more so than anyone else. There are very few Shakespearean roles for women that compare to it.”

In an attempt to reinvigorate this timeless story, the set design and costuming for this production will not be Elizabethan or traditional in any way. “It’s an interesting exercise to try to modernise Shakespeare, because of course the text is not modern,” Tovey laughs. “The design concept is contemporary – we’re dressed in contemporary clothing – but the set itself is also quite sparse. It’s not set in a particular place, but there are things in the set that call to Venice or call to wealth.  Things that give you a sense of where you are, so we’re finding interesting ways to make sure the audience come with us into what our version of Venice is.

“Portia 500 years ago would have been a lady in a big dress and a very pious gentlewoman. But picking up Portia and putting her in a modern world is a completely different thing,” Tovey says. “Shylock in the modern world is also a very different thing, and if we can breathe the new world into his work it actually becomes something really complex with more layers than it might have had 500 years ago. It certainly is a difficult text to tackle but I don’t think that should make people shy away from it. I think people should run towards things that scare them.”