The Merchant of Venice

If you have shied away from Shakespeare in past because you have always thought that it would be dry and incomprehensible, then this is the Shakespeare that you have been looking for.

By

Presented by The University of Adelaide Theatre Guild
Reviewed Wednesday 15th August 2012

William Shakespeare’s comedy, under the direction of the Guild’s Artistic Director, Edwin Kemp Atrill, is being presented as an all student performance. Set in the 1960s, and with the high level of sexual innuendo and broad physical comedy, including some hilarious sex scenes, it has a strong hint of Carry On, Shylock about it, along with a touch, my guest informed, of Sex in the City. His irreverent approach to the Bard’s play works extremely well, even engaging the crowd of school age patrons who, presumably, are studying this play, judging by their taking of copious notes.

Antonio stands as guarantor for his friend Bassanio, who needs money to travel to woo Portia. He borrows the money from Shylock, a Jewish money lender. Shylock lends the money on the basis that, if they default, he (or in this case, she) can take a pound of flesh from Antonio’s body, nearest the heart. There seems to be no risk, as Antonio has several ships at sea, returning with valuable cargoes, but foul weather brings reports that they have all floundered and sunk. Portia dresses as a man and arrives, pretending to be a lawyer, when Antonio is taken to court by Shylock, demanding his (her) pound of flesh. As usual, with Shakespeare, there are other side stories and intrigues, a good many other characters who are involved along the way, and several other love stories running parallel.

Lavinia Emmett-Grey takes on the role of Shylock, the wronged and maligned outsider, looked down on by everybody else, filled with hatred, and now suddenly having the means of exacting a cruel revenge. Emmett-Grey does a great job in the role of the Jewish moneylender, bringing out the range of emotions required for the role, ending with despair and bitterness when her plans are foiled.

Matthew Agius plays the object of Shylock’s hatred, Antonio, a man who clearly sees his duty and is willing to submit to Shylock’s demands. He is a man of honour and accepts his fate with stoic determination. Agius does a fine job with the role, but a little more light and shade would not go astray.

John Dexter’s Bassanio is every bit the upright citizen and he conveys well the mixed emotions he feels as he has won his love, but then realises the situation in which his overwhelming desire for Portia has placed Antonio. There is plenty of emotion, from passion to despair in Dexter’s portrayal of Bassanio.

Masha Ejova plays Portia, giving us the sweet, beautiful, and naive young girl who had attracted Bassanio then, a little later, she allows us to discover that this is simply what she allows him to see. Portia is smart enough to know that (especially in Elizabethan times and, to a considerable degree, even now) men can easily be scared away by an intelligent and educated woman. Ejova eventually reveals that there is more to Portia than meets the eye, nicely evolving her character into the smart, strong, and determined young lady who is to be Shylock’s downfall.

Shaez Mortimer is delightful as her maid and co-conspirator, Nerissa, who disguises herself as the lawyer’s clerk. There is plenty of flirting going on until she captures the heart of Gratiano, played well by  Sean Watters. She also plays a gender changed role, as Tubal, a friend to Shylock.

In Shakespeare’s day only men were allowed to become actors and so women’s roles were taken either by men or boys, depending on whether the role was a romantic one, or an aged crone. Today, there is always a shortage of men auditioning for roles, and usually enough women to fill their roles several times over and so, as we see in this performance, the roles in Shakespeare’s plays today often have a gender change to overcome this problem, as well as having actors playing more than one role.

Salarino and Salanio are a case in point, being played by Sophia Simmons and Emma Kew, which opens up a few new possibilities, of which Edwin Kemp Atrill takes full advantage. For those not well up on the story, though, it can get a little confusing as Emma Kew also plays Stephano, Portia’s servant, making it tricky at times to work out which character she is playing. Perhaps a hat or jacket might help distinguish between the two roles. Simmons and Kew get to add a few laughs with their antics, sniffing cocaine, in a similar manner to snuff, and holding up applause signs. There is plenty of girlish sniggering over the men they encounter and flirt with, as well.

Alex Antoniou and Jessica Carroll have a ball as the sex mad Lorenzo and Jessica, Shylock’s daughter, attracted like the opposite poles of a magnet, rushing together and clamping themselves to one another every time they come near, and quite often getting caught out in a state of sartorial disarray.

There is good work from those in the minor roles, too, along with excellent comic timing, generally good diction and projection, and plenty of pace and polish.

The upper level in the Little Theatre’s performance space is used to denote a distant location, as the action takes place both in Venice, naturally, and in Belmont, on the mainland, where Portia lives. Entrances and exits are made both from behind the stage and also through the auditorium, to indicate travel in various directions. A simple, uncluttered set design leaves plenty of working space and enables very short scene changes, which keeps the pace up at all times.

If you have shied away from Shakespeare in past because you have always thought that it would be dry and incomprehensible, then this is the Shakespeare that you have been looking for. It might just turn you into an addict. Don’t wait too long to get your tickets, though, as word is spreading fast that this is a real winner.

Reviewed by Barry Lenny, Arts Editor, Glam Adelaide.

Guild web site

Venue: Little Theatre, University of Adelaide
Season: To Saturday 25th August 2012
Duration: 2hrs incl interval
Tickets: Full $28/conc $23
Bookings: BASS on 132 246 only (fee applies), or at TryBooking online here
 

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