Shakespeare wrote 37 plays, and my chances of bucket-listing them all is exceedingly remote. I probably won’t rule a line through Cymbeline, Timon of Athens, or Titus Andronicus, so must content myself with the ‘commercially viable’; as such, The Merchant of Venice by the Bell Shakespeare Company came to Sydney yesterday, and I consumed it with gusto, much like the New Zealand King Salmon on polenta with sautéed lentils and tomato I had for dinner afterwards. A generous critic with two martinis under my belt, I say the salmon was sublime. However, I was stony cold-sober walking into the matinee, and properly conscious of the fact I’d dropped $150 to see this production.
What can I say, Jessica Tovey as Portia LOVES her boobs. She puts on her heels to welcome suitors exactly twice, but why run to middle-stage to bend over except to provide rows A through P with an almost medically complete examination of her upper torso? Fickle fate, I was of course seated in row Q, so everything was modestly blurry. That said, this isn’t Home & Away, it’s fuc*ing Shakespeare, baby! Get a leash on those puppies! I won’t launch a single missiles against her partner in crime, Catherine Davies playing the obnoxious Nerissa almost entirely for laughs, though she deserves a salvo. Every time the girls held the floor it felt like something the local high school might stage, and surprised I was not when I learned ex post facto that this was Tovey’s first gig with the inestimable Bard.
Much the same can be said for the lads, too many to name individually, who played most of the supporting cast. Boys having fun, grabbing the girls and pissing-about on stage. Lots of stupid fun. “Look at me, mum! I’d doin’ Shakespeare!” Were one of them to disappear while going for a morning swim off Cheviot Beach near Portsea, do you think the thespian world would fall to its knees in slightly-overplayed lamentation? Shit no. There was this huge Islander guy who kept physically flinging people around because, I guess, that’s why huge Islander guys do, being huge and all — but how about finding some depth? Some character? If he’d walked onto stage dressed as an All Black and kicked off proceedings with a haka, I could scarcely have been more surprised. All said, the twerpy Jacob Warner playing Launcelot was genuinely funny, with great timing and physical comedy.
So, as is often the case, the rescue mission falls on the shoulders of the older players. And boy do they deliver. Some say that Portia’s ‘quality of mercy‘ speech is one of the greatest given to any female character (umm, though she’s playing a dude at the time) in all the canon. I snored through it, barely heard all of it, distracted by silly shit other actors were doing on the sidelines. Mitchell Butel as Shylock, though, holy crap — his ‘hath not a Jew eyes‘ speech stole the show: righteous fury, vengefulness, pride, humility, everything was there, and he delivered it. I was riveted by this actor’s performance. I was ready to walk when Nerissa screeched ‘dicks!’ (pretty sure not in the original script) but I stayed for Shylock, and in the end my applause was for him alone. And of course, Shakespeare.
People say The Merchant of Venice one of Shakespeare’s ‘problem’ plays, and it surely covers some uncomfortable ground. As an atheist, I’m not pro-Christian in my reaction to this tale, so the final lines in the play, uttered by Shylock’s daughter Jessica (an understated and excellent performance by Felicity McKay) were immensely satisfying. I was outraged at the Christian’s bigotry towards the Jewish moneylender, at the malice they heaped upon him. To have him cheated of his dues, of justice, livelihood and his religion seemed almost unbearable — hence, the ‘problematic’ reputation of the play — so Jessica’s grief brings absolution, and (in my reading at least) a ray of hope for the benighted Shylock.
Lastly, is it really that difficult to say ‘glisters’ and not glitters?
I weep for the English language sometimes, I really do. The day will come, perhaps with Portia clad in a skin-tight spacesuit she keeps having to peel off her futuristically-enhanced cyberbody, when all we’ll get is ‘Just coz it glows don’t mean it’s like, y’know, gold or anyfing” and then I will take my bucket, empty the remnants of my list out onto the rainy pavement of our post-apocalyptic world, and beat my brains out.
That’s right, for Shakespeare.