A Bizarre Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare

November 8, 2007
The Merchant of Venice was written by William Shakespeare and directed by Richard Rose. Performed at the Festival Theatre in Stratford, Ontario. Graham Greene ill, therefore Scott Wentworth took the character of Shylock.
The Merchant of Venice is meant to be two stories – one realistic and one fantasy. The tone of the realistic counterpart of the play should be solemn and serious, whereas the fantasy should be happy and light. Richard Rose failed to create either of these moods, deciding to add confusion and dullness into the realistic story and illogical character traits in the fantasy story. The Merchant of Venice is famous for touching on the subjects of ethics, anti-Semitism and justice – all of which were portrayed in a most illogical form. There is no message or theme that is apparent to the audience and the acting leaves much to be improved. Phillip Clarkson’s strange costumes add to the perplexity the performance of this play invokes.
The Merchant of Venice’s technical aspects took away from the atmosphere Shakespeare was trying to create, instead creating this mix of 16th century Venice and modern day city life. The set created by Gillian Gallow and Douglas Paraschucks is a large cross split in the middle. There seems to be a dinner table across, and as my fellow student commented, giving the impression of the depiction of The Last Supper with a roasted pig right smack in the middle. Maybe it was supposed to be explained by the entrance of men wearing pig masks beating an unidentified man, but this set and display only added to the already brewing stew of confusion. What’s more, the music in the production was an unexplainable mix – going from a techno rock and roll introduction to lovely church music and then right back to loud angry rock music. The costumes clash as much as the music does. The suitors come in German leather knickerbockers, Scottish kilts and some sort of outfit that does not look remotely like an Italian garment, while Shylock is dressed in practically an Armani suit complete with a tie and leather shoes. While this might seem consistent with a modern day theme, we consistently revert back to 16th century Venice with doublets and ruffs. The lighting was the only detail that could be understood. Dimmed lights and spotlights were used effectively, especially for the famous "hath not a Jew eyes?" speech made by Shylock (John Innes), which unfortunately lacked the passion that the Shylock acted by Graham Greene seemingly possessed, and therefore needed the extra addition of attention and importance.
Perhaps the largest disappointment when viewing this production was the acting. Due to illness, Shylock was performed not by Graham Greene, but by John Innes whose performance was decent but not remarkable or up to standard. This acting seemed to retard all the other actors’ abilities and sincerity. In the beginning of the play, I was under the impression that Portia (Severn Thompson) was a pathetic, weak, innocent woman waiting for the right suitor to come due to the soft tone of her voice, her fluttery hand motions and her simple smiles. This was inconsistent later on in the play when the courtroom scene unfolds; where did this bold, strong minded debater come from? Also, Severn Thompson’s performance was not convincing – the lines she declared were too practiced and memorized, and you could tell. Jessica, acted by Sara Topham, however, gave an incredibly compelling performance and the only criticism to be said is the unexplained finale of the performance, where she is mournfully reciting a Jewish prayer. You wonder why she is so sad, which is disappointingly not explained in the performance. Perhaps it is for her father’s shame or her decision to convert; maybe she wishes she hadn’t eloped or stolen from her poor father. Possibly in this version of The Merchant of Venice, we are not meant to know.
This production of The Merchant of Venice was downright confusing and dull. The only moments of enlightenment was the small bits of comedy Rose could scrape from the bottom of the bowl. I would not suggest this play to anyone other than those that have a mind so open for new ideas and confusing parts that the stunning difference in the Shakespearean expectation of the play and this interpretation of The Merchant of Venice does not waive them.

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