Merchant mirth

The Merchant of Venice

Gardens Theatre

October 5 – 8

“The Merchant of Venice” is filled with some of Shakespeare’s most common motifs; it is set in Italy, a letter is sent to Padua and twice in the play daring escapes are executed through cross-dressing. Yet, it remains one of the canon’s most challenging, and, therefore, rarely performed works for modern audiences, thanks to its anti-semitic themes. However, under the direction of Michael Futcher and Helen Howard, QUT’s second year Acting students present the work in a way that speaks clearly of our prejudiced modern world, while remaining authentic, respectful and rigorous.

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The play begins by following the young and impulsive Bassanio as he sets out on a quest to woo Portia of Belmont. To do so, he must borrow from his titular wealthy merchant friend, Antonio. Because Antonio is currently cash-poor, having invested his money in overseas mercantile ventures, they need to seek the help of a disenfranchised moneylender, Shylock. While Shylock is initially hesitant due to Antonio’s; previous anti-semitism, he eventually agrees to the loan on condition that he can carve out a pound of Antonio’s flesh if he cannot punctually return the funds.

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Following the loan agreement, Bassanio is able to win Portia’s hand and heart when faced with a guesswork game of choice of three caskets, made of gold, silver and lead, forced upon her by her deceased father. When Antonio’s ships miscarry and his estate grows low, his bond to the Jew is forfeited so Portia, unbeknownst to Bassanio, disguises herself as a man and travels to Venice, pretending to be a doctor of the law to free Antonio from his execution at Shylock’s hand. Not only is Antonio’s life spared but the court proceeds to punish Shylock by forcing his conversion to Christianity.

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In spite of his contemptuous final reflections, many audience members see the ending as one of horrible injustice for the Jewish moneylender and this production brings a degree of sympathy to the antagonist’s loss of everything he values. Although not the ‘old Shylock’ referenced in the text, Ryan Hodson is excellent in the role. Of hunched physicality but robustness of voice, his layered performance ranges from rage in reaction to his daughter Jessica’s elopement with the Christian, Lorenzo to delight at the prospect of revenge upon Antonio, adeptly incorporating humour, villainy, and empathy as he makes his story both one of an angry old man, pushed to barbarity by the barbarism around him as much as a comment on race.

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As Antonio, the arbitrary victim of Shylock’s rage, Tom Wilson is an early standout, setting the tone of the text, despite only appearing occasionally on stage. His Antonio is one of honour but also much melancholy amidst his generosity, which is revealed especially in scenes with his dear friend, the equally confident and arrogant Bassanio (Karl Stuifzand), with only suggestion of a homosexual dimension to the relationship between the two.

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Ebony Nave brings an emotional range to the prominent and intelligent Portia, especially evident though her reactions in the third casket scene where she initially feigns disinterest to appear nonchalant but then hopes for the success of Bassanio, a Venetian, scholar and solider visitor in her father’s time. Self-assertive after his correct choice of the lead casket, her performance is playfully energetic, particularly in the final scene resolution of the ring plot.

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The cast excels at performing the Bard’s dense language with conversational tone and easily find the play’s moments of mirth. Tom Cossettini and Alex Neal are delightfully dexterous as comic-relief clowns Lancelot and his father Gobbo.

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Portia’s satiric recalled cataloguing of her wooers according to national stereotypes is full of light-hearted fun and Alex Neal also delivers a hilarious pantomimish performance as Portia’s second potential suitor, the egotistical Prince of Aragon who, when faced with the silver casket’s inscription ‘who chooseth me shall get as much as he deserves’ assumes desert and the instant unlock of his fortunes.

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QUT’s second-year Bachelor of Fine Arts (Acting) students have created a sharp and clear “The Merchant of Venice” that balances humour with its examination of the baser aspects of humanity. Ultimately, however, its theme of racism prevails and by throwing light on this, the work serves to showcase the universality of its themes of justice and mercy, showing how it is not Shakespeare plays that are timeless.

Photos c/o – Fiona Sonja de Sterke

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