Review / The mesmerising ‘Merchant of Venice’

Theatre / “The Merchant of Venice”, Bell Shakespeare. Directed by Anne-Louise Sarks. At The Playhouse until October 21. Reviewed by SIMONE PENKETHMAN

Jessica Tovey in “The Merchant of Venice”. Photo by Prudence Upton

BELL Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice is a highly accessible and comic retelling of this morally ambiguous tale.

Michael Hankin’s set and costume design is simple and sumptuous. No one could fail to envy Shylock his black, silk coat. Glittering gold and silver elements conjure up the aesthetic and wealth of the global power, Venice. Chairs and costume racks to the side of stage bring a sense of comedic chaos to the set. Centre stage is mostly an open space for the highly physical and tightly choreographed action to unfold.

Status and power relationships are key to the comedy. Launcelot (Jacob Warner) a low-status servant and go-between is like a classic Commedia dell’Arte fool.

White privilege is the dark side of this story. Blonde, Christian Antonio’s (Jo Turner) generosity to his friend Bassanio (Damien Strouthos) contrasts with his cruel exclusion and derision of Shylock (Mitchell Butel), the Jewish money lender. Homo-erotic elements of Antonio and Bassanio’s friendship are accentuated throughout the show.

The women characters all play games with status and gender as they embark on their various, deceptive plot twists. Portia (Jessica Tovey) and Nerissa (Catherine Davies) are an electric combination exuding spark and wit. Shylock’s daughter Jessica (Felicity McKay) is the conscience of the play as she struggles between her desire for acceptance into the Christian majority and her shame at betraying her father and her culture.

The action is mesmerising and the articulation is perfect. This is director Anne-Louise Sarks’ first Bell Shakespeare show and in it she has achieved a highly entertaining yet nuanced production. Energy is high, momentum is strong and yet it never rushes its point.

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