[Review] The Merchant of Venice

18 May 2014
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Photos by Singapore Repertory Theatre

Fort Canning Park has been transformed once again into an open-air theatrical space in the occasion of the annual Shakespeare in the Park season. Together with Scottish director Bruce Guthrie, they present The Merchant of Venice to Singaporean audiences.

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The Merchant of Venice is a controversial play with anti-Semitic undertones, which places Shylock (Ramesh Panicher), a Jewish moneylender, against the generous yet proud Antonio (Daniel Jenkins). The latter is a wealthy Venetian merchant who tries to help Bassanio (Perri Snowdon), a less wealthy nobleman, to raise funds to marry the beautiful and rich, Portia (Julie Wee). This is also, however, not so much a love story but a feminist text that portrays Portia and her woman-in-waiting, Nerissa (Isabella Chiam) as witty and sharp young women, who can easily play tricks on their male counterparts and manipulate the situation. While remaining largely a comedy, there are some serious themes at play – pride, friendship, honesty, class and politics. That is not including the complex dynamics between characters: the difficult relationship between Shylock and his rebellious daughter Jessica (Krissy Jesudason), the friendship between Bassanio and Antonio, Antonio and Shylock etc. As how Guthrie introduced in the programme booklet, all the characters are inevitable flawed, which is what makes this play interesting and by far not racist.

Despite being less bombastic that last year’s staging of Othello, Guthrie’s trademark is in giving a contemporary feel to Shakespeare’s scripts, complete with cell phones, laptops, and an enormous set made up of light panels and metal structures, bordering the centre stage, where the focus on the main action is. Similar to last year’s production, a bridge structure present in the middle of the stage allows actors to play at different levels, well exemplifying the dynamic control and power in the relationships between characters. That is particularly effective in the scenes where Portia tries her suitors, looking down from the bridge, by giving them a choice of boxes that will give access to her love.

The stage design contrasts last year’s Othello’s overpowering war theme with its game of colored lights, adding a nightclub’s feel to the production. This youthful touch well suits the theme of youth and love in this play. However, the sound score is far more restrained. The movement sequences, such as during the carnivalesque party scene when Jessica deserted her father after fleeing with his jewels, failed to infuse a bit more vitality into a production which the text seeks at its very essence. At times these rare movement sequences come across rather ill at ease and under-rehearsed.

I admire Guthrie’s choice to shift the focus onto the text this time. The fine cast, a mix of local and overseas actors, well sustains the complexity of the play. However, the production lacks the gravity and presence that pivotal characters like Antonio, Shylock and even Bassanio demands. There is too much caution and reverence towards the text that make some of their performances a bit awkward. The female cast Julie Wee, Isabella Chaim and Krissy Jesudason are, instead, more comfortable in their skins and Sean Lai as Lancelot is effectively humorous with his talking puppets. But this only happens once in the first half. In the second half, Lancelot is left to his typical mischievous behavior.

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The main disappointment in this production is in the lack of humor and satire. Despite the gravity of the themes present in the original text, the play remains essentially a comedy. The last scenes, when the women reveal their tricks to the men – that they, dressed as men, were the ones who took their rings away after Antonio’s trial – are largely deflated and miss the irony of the situation. The show ends with Jessica crying over her father’s misfortune, changing the mood of the play completely. Albeit an interesting choice made by the director, this places the focus on the tragic elements of the play, which unfortunately does not work well in the end and the crying feels rather misplaced.

Despite all this and thanks to the professional value of the production, and for the love of Shakespeare’s work, for the alfresco theatre, The Merchant of the Venice remains to have a lot to offer.

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The Merchant of Venice runs from 30 April to 25 May at the Fort Canning Park.