Warren Kimmel (Shylock), left, with Charlie Gallant (Bassanio) in Bard on the Beach’s Merchant of Venice. (photo by David Blue)
It is always hard as a Jew to watch Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, which has been characterized at one end of the spectrum as purely antisemitic and at the other as sympathetic to the plight of outsiders. Each vicious epithet hurled at Shylock, the Jewish protagonist, hits you in the gut like a ton of bricks. However, the play has to be considered in the context that Shakespeare likely had never even met a Jew.
Jews were expelled from England in 1290 and not invited back until the 1650s, by Oliver Cromwell. England was judenrein (“free of Jews”) for almost 400 years. Merchant was written between 1594 and 1599. How, then, could Shakespeare write such virulent diatribes against Jews? Was he influenced by the zeitgeist of his time or was he trying to preach a morality lesson to Elizabethan audiences? Bard on the Beach takes on the daunting task of presenting this “sinister parable of our times,” as director Nigel Shawn Williams calls it in his director’s notes.
The story revolves around Bassanio (Charlie Gallant), a Venetian lord and bankrupt fortune hunter, who needs 3,000 ducats (apparently close to three-quarters of a million in today’s dollars) to woo Belmont heiress Portia (Olivia Hutt) so that he can wed wealthily. His friend, Antonio (Edward Foy), a successful shipping merchant, urges him to borrow the sum from Shylock (Jewish community member Warren Kimmel) and agrees to stand surety for the loan. Shylock, who has been humiliated and abused by Antonio and his ilk, sees an opportunity for revenge and agrees to lend the money on the condition that if there is a default he gets a pound of Antonio’s flesh. Antonio’s ships run aground, he cannot repay the loan and Shylock demands his bond in a dramatic court room scene that includes the “Quality of Mercy” speech and, unfortunately, a not-so-happy ending for Shylock.
Fast-forward several centuries and enter cosmopolitan Venice as presented in Bard’s contemporary take on this play. It is a world inhabited by self-centred metrosexuals with a sense of entitlement, where money and power carry the day. These guys are not very nice and anyone who does not fit their worldview is an outsider deserving of contempt. The play opens with a frenetic scene as actors bustle to and fro. Shylock enters the melee, is tripped by Antonio and falls flat on his face amid the jeering crowd – a harbinger of what is to come.
I have seen all four of Bard’s productions of Merchant since it was first presented in 1996 – this one raises the bar, although there are some shaky bits along the way. While purists decry taking Shakespearean works out of period, putting Merchant in a contemporary business setting full of suits will resonate with audiences.
Despite the fact that I cringed every time Shylock was spat upon or called a Jew dog, I was moved by Kimmel’s “Hath a Jew not eyes” soliloquy, his heartbreak on learning that his daughter Jessica (Carmela Sison) had eloped with gentile Lorenzo (Chirag Naik), his soulful rendition of the Kaddish and his isolation as he sat alone in the courtroom facing his antagonists. Kimmel is sublime in his dignified portrayal of Shylock. You really care about what happens to him.
While Antonio is the merchant of Venice and Shylock the victim, this Bard version is very much about Portia and her plight as a woman facing stereotypical and misogynistic restrictions. We first see this when she has to endure the indignity of being the prize (wife) in a game devised by her now-deceased father for three would-be suitors. Each has the chance to pick one of three caskets (gold, silver and lead) that contains her photograph. The first two, Prince of Morocco (Nadeem Phillip) and Prince of Aragon (Paul Moniz de Sa), are brilliant in their cameo roles. In other productions, they are played as buffoons. Here they are elegantly dressed but smarmy and unctuous and, thank goodness, ultimately unsuccessful in their casket choices. Then along comes Bassanio, who picks the right casket (“all that glimmers is not gold”) and wins fair lady.
Portia’s next trial is the real one, where she disguises herself as a young lawyer and listens carefully to Shylock’s pleas for justice. It is in this scene that Hutt truly shines as the quick-witted and resourceful heroine Shakespeare intended her to be.
As good as the production is, there are some problems. Many of the actors spend a lot of time yelling their lines, which is distracting. I was offended by the Nazi salute Solania (Kate Besworth) made when mocking Shylock. It adds nothing to the story and should be taken out. There is a short homoerotic scene between Bassanio and Antonio, including a full-on mouth-to-mouth kiss, that seemed out of place, and Shylock’s forced conversion to Christianity is played down – he is told he must convert and simply walks off the stage, leaving the audience to wonder what happened to the bankrupt and humiliated moneylender.
Production values are high, including some interesting freeze-frame moments. The stage is at floor level, making for a very intimate audience experience. The stark minimalist set allows the focus to be on the dialogue. High-tech gadgets like cellphones, laptops and iPads seamlessly fit into the mix, and Drew Facey’s stylishly chic costumes are structured and fitted for urban Venice, and softer and looser for coastal Belmont. Conor Moore’s projections, Adrian Muir’s lighting and Patrick Pennefather’s sound, a mélange of contemporary and classical music, provide the finishing touches.
This is an intelligent, moving production. See it, consider it, discuss it. Tickets for this and other Bard shows can be purchased at bardonthebeach.org or 604-739-0559.
Tova Kornfeld is a Vancouver freelance writer and lawyer.
Also on stage …
Running on the Main Stage at Bard on the Beach is Much Ado About Nothing with The Winter’s Tale. Director John Murphy has transported the comedy of Much Ado into a 1950s Italian film studio. Think Fellini, Sophia Loren, Vespas and fabulous cocktail dresses.
The story is boy meets girl, they profess to hate each other and then realize (with a little nudging from family and friends) that maybe they are right for each other. Of course, to get to the final epiphany, there are lots of misadventures, including mistaken identities, a young bride left at the altar and a faked death. As the program guide notes, “Friendships are tested, secrets are revealed but will love conquer all?” Amber Lewis and Kevin MacDonald are stellar as in the main roles of Beatrice (one of Shakespeare’s feistiest female characters) and Benedick. Community member Tara Cheyenne Friedenberg’s choreography is featured in this fun foray.
The Two Gentleman of Verona, which is on the Howard Family Stage, is also very good. Friedenberg choreographed some of the movement in this production as well, and her work is lovely. This production also stars a real dog, a basset hound named Gertie, who almost steals the show without doing anything but coming out on stage and mournfully looking at the audience.