Arts / How sociopath Shylock loses the plot

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Mitchell Butel, as Shylock, and Felicity McKay, as Jessica, in Bell Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice”. Photo by Prudence Upton

ACTOR Mitchell Butel is hot property, as they say in showbiz. He’s won three Helpmann Awards, two Green Room awards and has played in “everything from cabaret and opera to “Angels in America”.

Now he’s scored the dream role for any serious actor – Shylock, in Bell Shakespeare’s new production of “The Merchant of Venice”, and it won’t be a stereotyped interpretation.

“I’ve never played Shylock before,” he tells “CityNews”. Weirdly, a few years ago he was in Simon Stone’s deconstructed version of Gogol’s “The Government Inspector” playing someone who always wants to play Shylock.

“I’m truly grateful it finally happened, I’m glad the universe eventually brought it to me,” he says.

With his dark good looks he seems a shoo-in for the part. “I am what you call a character actor, so roles that are not normal leading man-parts start to come your way when you get to a certain age,” he says, “Fagin [in “Oliver!”] is a similar kind of role.”

But Shylock is no Fagin, and Butel is excited that the director, Anne-Louise Sarks, has the same vision of the play as his.

“Anne-Louise was very interested in the radical potential of the piece and keen to highlight the ‘fear of difference’ which runs through the play, which she has edited down to two hours and 20 minutes,” he says.

“She has a notion of middle-class white guys like Antonio and Bassanio having all the privileges but none of the responsibilities.”

He explains that when Bassanio needs money to court Portia, he goes to his best mate Antonio, who borrows it from Shylock.

“Antonio plus Bassanio plus Shylock – It makes for a potent brew,” Butel says.

While Shylock has often been depicted as a tragic victim of a narrow-minded society, he doesn’t see him as an angel.

“Shylock has a reputation for integrity and dignity, but as a result of the prejudice and bigotry and even more because of the loss of his daughter, he becomes a sociopath and asks for the pound of flesh,” Butel says.

“By the time he gets to the courtroom, he’s not a nice character at all, but we will show how he gets to that point.”

There are two famous speeches in this play and the one that begins, “Hath not a Jew eyes?” comes from the mouth of Shylock. It has been delivered as a tearjerker, but in this production Sarks has cut out some minor characters so it is spoken directly to the audience.

They’ve already had Q&As in which they’ve been asked whether Shakespeare was anti-Semitic.

“I wouldn’t consider it anti-Semitic, because the right of reply is given to Shylock – Shakespeare was looking at it from a different angle,” says Butel.

As for the second famous speech, in which Portia asserts in court that “The quality of mercy is not strained”, the apparent nobility of Portia is set by Jessica Tovey against moments in which she is shown as privileged and casually racist – as in her reference to the Prince of Morocco’s “complexion” – that’s casual related racism.

And when does Shylock leave the stage? Well, ostensibly it’s after the judge asks him: “Art thou contented, Jew?” and he replies: “I am content”, admitting defeat. But in this production the director has insinuated a nonverbal final meeting with Shylock’s daughter Jessica, a comment on his loss.

“You’ll see me in another form,” says Butel mysteriously, “all will be revealed.”

“The Merchant of Venice”, The Playhouse, October 13-21. Bookings to or 6275 2700.

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Helen Musa
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