Bard on the Beach's Merchant of Venice boldly underlines plot's hatred and inhumanity
By William Shakespeare. Directed by Nigel Shawn Williams. A Bard on the Beach production. At the Howard Family Stage on Thursday, July 6. Continues until September 17
In his director’s notes, Nigel Shawn Williams describes The Merchant of Venice as a “sinister parable for our times".
His vision boldly underlines the hatred, venality, and inhumanity that drive so much of the plot, but that vision gets watered down considerably in the second half of the play.
Merchant has long been controversial for the anti-Semitism directed at the character of Shylock, the Jewish moneylender who demands a pound of flesh as his bond for the loan of 3,000 ducats to the wealthy merchant Antonio. The merchant has borrowed the money to bankroll his fiscally imprudent young friend Bassanio as he woos the wealthy heiress Portia. Bassanio succeeds, but when Antonio’s economic ventures fail and he can’t repay the debt, Shylock demands justice. Portia, disguising herself as a lawyer, exhorts Shylock to be merciful, then deploys a legal technicality that saves Antonio but bankrupts Shylock and forces him to convert to Christianity. Mercy, anyone?
Williams’s contemporary production creates a world of heartless greed: in the opening scene, projections of stock-market tickers wash over the back walls while clusters of well-dressed people cross back and forth across the stage to slick music, freezing momentarily in pools of light. When Shylock, wearing an impeccable business suit and yarmulke, falls down, he is greeted by cruel laughter.
The callousness continues as Antonio sits in a restaurant, making his waiter bend down and pick up the bills he’s casually tossed on the ground. Bassanio, all James Dean slouch and sunglasses, describes Portia in purely economic terms: he caresses the word riches and shrugs off “She’s fair,” then mimes slapping her ass. In this world, Shylock’s disgust at Antonio’s habit of lending without charging interest seems perfectly reasonable; it’s all about good business practice. And Shylock’s desire for revenge makes sense when we’ve witnessed his repeated humiliations.
The design is more consistently successful than the acting in this stylish production, where laptops and smartphones feel right at home alongside old-fashioned brass scales on Marshall McMahen’s handsome set, a mostly bare stage with austere square columns that recede into the background. Conor Moore’s video projections saturate the space with emblems of material wealth, while Drew Facey’s costumes are up-to-the-minute sharp. Patrick Pennefather’s sound and Adrian Muir’s lighting are most dramatic whenever the action freezes into a stylized slow-motion sequence, a technique Williams uses effectively to foreground many of the monologues.
Some of the best belong to Warren Kimmel’s Shylock, a high-status businessman who knows when he has the upper hand and plays it with calm dignity. Just before his trial, we see him praying in a tower, lifting his voice in worshipful song, his stillness in stark counterpoint to the Venetians scurrying about in the courtroom. But given all that has come before, Williams could do more to highlight the hypocrisy of Portia’s and the Duke’s final judgment; Shylock simply accepts his fate and leaves.
Williams’s critique is similarly diminished when Bassanio meets Portia; a change of clothes and a long look into her eyes seem to be all that’s needed to reform this ass-slapping cad into a worthy husband. And Williams seems to be getting at something in the scenes between Jessica, Shylock’s daughter, and Lorenzo, with whom she has eloped, but the point eluded me in Chirag Naik’s unfocused performance as Lorenzo, which leaves Carmela Sison’s Jessica looking lost much of the time.
Charlie Gallant brings a finely tuned presence to Bassanio, and Nadeem Phillip and Paul Moniz de Sá both do solid work as two other suitors of Olivia Hutt’s Portia, a strong, smart woman, especially when she’s in the guise of the lawyer. As her companion, Nerissa, Luisa Jojic is always crystal clear. Too many of the other actors in this production attempt to use volume as a substitute for meaning, though, which makes for a very shouty evening.
Merchant is a challenging play, and it’s both smart and brave to treat it as a lens through which to view the bleak realities of our times. That lens is sharpest at the top of this production, but unfortunately loses focus long before the end.