Review: Shakespeare in the Park – Merchant of Venice
I have made it a point to watch Shakespeare in the Park since I first saw Macbeth in 2011, but skipped last year’s Othello due to its depressing nature. I didn’t write about Twelfth Night, but after watching this year’s production I simply had to blog about the Merchant of Venice.
Performing Shakespeare in anachronistic settings is nothing new, and for this performance the Singapore Repertory Theatre (SRT) went for the modern corporate world. Antonio is a rich merchant, Portia is the modern corporate superwoman, and Shylock an Indian chettiar.
I think this metropolitan setting is appropriate, and the interweaving of modern day elements like technology and modern memes work very well in bringing the play to Life and making it a lot more accessible to today’s audiences. Portia is wooed by tablets, selections are made by touchscreen, messages are disseminated through text/ chat messages, and the wanes of Antonio’s fortunes are made more plausible through hints of not just shipping, but commodity market failures.
The set is very cleverly designed. That’s one aspect of Shakespeare in the Park I have always found fascinating. Because you don’t have the normal staging facilities and set changes, the centre stage has to serve multiple scenes. This requires design to be innovative and clever. Without set changes, creative design and use allow it to serve as Shylock’s office, a modern bar, the casket chamber, the courtroom and so on.
A select group of the audience will get involved in a non-threatening yet key way, which I won’t give away here. Suffice it to say, if an SRT attendant comes up to you in the queue to offer you a role, take it. Not only will you be offered a good reserved viewing spot, you will get a rare chance to be right in the midst of real stage acting, watching all the key players up close in one of the most dramatic moments in the story.
Merchant of Venice has been a difficult play to classify. It’s often called a comedy. Without doubt, it is full of witty repartee, clever dialogue, and farcical situations, and it does have a happy ending (for all except Shylock).
But comedy is contextual. Back in Shakespeare’s day, it could be enjoyed without reservation due to the biases held then. The idea of men who played women playing men was also an ‘inside’ joke we can’t appreciate today since we actually have women stage actors now.
For today’s more sensitive audience, it can be a hard play to watch, because many of sentiments held when it first played are frowned on today. Because of our increasing awareness, discomfort and intolerance towards racism and bigotry, moral judgments that wouldn’t have been an issue in the 1600s are inevitable now. Filtered through the mind of the modern watcher, it is a play fraught with ‘problems’, like anti-Semitism, religious bovarism, shallowness, treatment of women, triumph for sweet-talking gold-diggers.
How these things would be addressed, downplayed, selectively emphasized, or altogether omitted, was something I was eager to discover.
No Apology (but a Punishment)
Some productions try to cast an apologetic slant on more disturbing elements of the play, particularly the anti-semitic treatment of Shylock.
There is none of that here. As far as I could discern, no dialogue was changed, no attempt to make Shylock more ‘deserving’ of his Fate made. Indeed, what I saw reinforced the conviction that Shylock is a man ill-used and cruelly victimized, broken at the end of the play in every way that matters to him.
One thing we can all agree on is that the human evils like racism and religious bigotry have been here long before us, and will be here long after we are gone. That brings out the tragedy of Shylock, because as a predominantly non-white society we can identify with the treatment we or a loved one may have encountered not just overseas, but even here in our own country by foreigners who dare treat us so.
When Shylock speaks of being spat on in passing, it personally recalled two incidents for me. One was an Asian friend going up an escalator only to have a white woman throw water at her, and second, an incident in Australia when I was simply walking by the roadside and a bunch of yobs in a passing truck threw an empty beer can at me.
Signor Antonio, many a time and oft
In the Rialto you have rated me
About my moneys and my usances.
Still have I borne it with a patient shrug,
For sufferance is the badge of all our tribe.
You call me misbeliever, cutthroat dog,
And spet upon my Jewish gaberdine—
And all for use of that which is mine own.
– Act 1 Scene 3
He hath disgraced me, and
hindered me half a million; laughed at my losses,
mocked at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my
bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine
enemies; and what’s his reason? I am a Jew.
– Act 3 Scene 1
The argument could be made, given this treatment – and in an age where we have grown to enjoy revenge films like The Punisher and Taken – that the happy ending could very well be Antonio getting his just desserts!
The denouement in which Shylock is forced into Christianity was handled without any attempt to soften the cruelty of that act. It recalls uncomfortable historical instances where forced renouncements of creed and belief were the punishment for being ruled or conquered. What was a ‘victory’ in the 1600s is, against the backdrop of history, subjugation no different from Christians being forced to either renounce their religion or be thrown to the lions or the dismantling of Shintoism in Japan after World War II.
Jessica and Lorenzo
The valuable experience of attending a live play is that you get differing perspectives because each production is the amalgamation of ideas from both creative directors and expressive actors.
In the same way cultivating a relationship over Whatsapp or Facebook messenger is near useless without the fuller picture furnished by facial expressions, body language and other subtle nuances, just reading a play limits you to one interpretation of the communication – yours. And how you read that communication can make a difference to how you interpret a situation.
This brings me to Jessica and Lorenzo.
One thing that has always bothered me was gold-digger Lorenzo eloping with Shylock’s daughter Jessica, and scant attention paid to this heinous act. This subplot illustrates a theme still relevant today, that of the sweet-talking player and the lesser women attracted to them, giving and unconscionably betraying all in a moment of stupidity. In a way, the remorseless act of stealing from her own father, eloping with Loreozo without a qualm, squandering that stolen wealth, and even exchanging Jessica’s deceased mother’s ring for a monkey (one of the truly WTF moments in the play), is more disturbing than the treatment of Shylock
In what may be a rare decision to offer a moral judgement and mete out punishment, this is ‘taken care’ of in mainly two ways.
First, signs of deterioration of their relationship abound, often silent but communicated in body language, something you could never get from reading the text, but which the writers are free to include for our viewing. That makes the culmination in this exchange a heated explosion:
The moon shines bright: in such a night as this,
When the sweet wind did gently kiss the trees
And they did make no noise, in such a night
Troilus methinks mounted the Troyan walls
And sigh’d his soul toward the Grecian tents,
Where Cressid lay that night.
In such a night
Did Thisbe fearfully o’ertrip the dew
And saw the lion’s shadow ere himself
And ran dismay’d away.
In such a night
Stood Dido with a willow in her hand
Upon the wild sea banks and waft her love
To come again to Carthage.
In such a night
Medea gather’d the enchanted herbs
That did renew old AEson.
In such a night
Did Jessica steal from the wealthy Jew
And with an unthrift love did run from Venice
As far as Belmont.
In such a night
Did young Lorenzo swear he loved her well,
Stealing her soul with many vows of faith
And ne’er a true one.
In such a night
Did pretty Jessica, like a little shrew,
Slander her love, and he forgave it her.
This exchange, often depicted as a banter of good cheer and humour, is played in the form of a heated and escalating quarrel, in a rather vicious exchange that favours another view, that Shakespeare intended some judgement on their relationship by suggesting a less happy ending than that of the other two couples.
And finally this:
Ay, and I’ll give them him without a fee.
There do I give to you and Jessica,
From the rich Jew, a special deed of gift,
After his death, of all he dies possess’d of.
Fair ladies, you drop manna in the way
Of starved people
What would seem like an aside where Shylock is mentioned only in passing, now becomes the focus of attention by which end the play. For upon reading this ‘deed’, Jessica bursts into sobs. The implication is the oft speculated “I pray you, give me leave to go from hence. I am not well.” presages Shylocks’ suicide is clear here. Contrasting Jessica’s sobs with Lorenzo’s greedy reaction reinforce that there can be no happy ending for this ‘love’ story henceforth.
Most people like happy endings. If there was no way to give us this with Shylock, there is perhaps some small consolation in the just desserts visited upon Jessica. Closing the play thusly shifts the emphasis back to Shylock as a centre, not a conveniently forgotten caricature that is often the case in other productions.
There was one disappointment though. It seems to be a nitpick but it’s worth mentioning because many people will be waiting for this speech.
Hath not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs,
dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with
the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject
to the same diseases, healed by the same means,
warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as
a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed?
if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison
us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not
revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will
resemble you in that. If a Jew wrong a Christian,
what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian
wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by
Christian example? Why, revenge. The villany you
teach me, I will execute, and it shall go hard but I
will better the instruction.
I expected something more grandiose, with the tension building to a fever pitch as the monologue rises in a crescendo. Instead, this was delivered almost in the mode of conversational dialogue, which I felt didn’t bring out the intensity of emotion enough. Indeed the slightly empty feel was accentuated with the performance soon after of the “oh my ducats” scene in which you really felt something.
Many words and phrases we use today had origins in Shakespeare, who if he did not invent all, at least popularized many. Here are few choiciest examples from Merchant of Venice.
“You speak an infinite deal of nothing.” – Bassanio, Act I, Sc.1
And so do many people these days, hiding nonsense and zero substance behind pompous jargon, convoluted sentences, empty promises, and political rhetoric.
“blinking idiot” – Arragon, Act II, Sc. 9
Instead of portraits, we have living, breathing specimens today.
“All that glisters is not gold” – Morroco, Act II, Sc.7
A lesson well worth remembering in judging by appearances.
“The devil can cite scripture for his purpose.” – Antonio, Act I, Sc.3
And so can many skilled equivocators today… beware!
“In the twinkling of an eye.” – Launcelot, Act II, Sc. 2
Now modernized to “in the blinking of an eye”.
‘If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not avenge?” – Shylock, Act III, Sc.1
Truer words tearing down the ridiculous basis for racism have seldom been spoken.
“Love is blind” – Jessica, Act 2, Sc. 6
Even to our own eventual ruin, unfortunately.
“Pound of flesh” – Shylock, repeated many times
Here’s where that phrase to describe something that must be paid back, regardless of how ruthless it may leave the payee, came from. Enough pounds of flesh have been extracted in politics, workplaces, and other places to make this world, in sum, one quite starved of humanity, kindness and compassion.
Remesh Panicker was a great choice. His performance was outstanding. Being Indian he can use the stereotypical Indian accent as suits the occasion without being insulting, and this he does with much aplomb. Somehow his delivery and voice often reminds me very much of Al Pacino’s performance. You cannot help but immediately like him. Even subtle acting decisions, such as his obvious hesitation before actually moving to extract his pound of flesh, speaks of a humanity in Shylock that he has to overcome, and thus become an even more tragic figure.
Daniel Jenkins was Antonio. Daniel is a good actor, but Antonio was not outstanding. That is to say, as I watched this, I realized that Antonio is not really given real shining moments by Shakespeare, and an actor can only work with the role as written. The most I can feel is admiration for him as a true friend, given the high premium I place on true friendship. But comparing the emotions I felt watching Antonio, with those while watching Shylock, I realize that this is truly Shylock’s story. Ironic, since The Merchant of Venice actually refers to Antonio, not Shylock.
Julie Wee as Portia conveyed the right combination of intelligence, wit and sass. I love her speaking voice and I love her enunciation. She delivers a convincing performance, and epitomizes that ideal modern combination of brains and beauty, something Shakespeare was definitely ahead of his time in portraying.
One of my pet peeves has always been cheap people. And this was awakened rudely again.
The SRT is a non-profit organization, so it must raise funds through various means from fundraising events to selling programme booklets.
Programme booklets are always a favourite of mine. Firstly it’s a souvenir of the event, but more importantly it contains facts about the production, the artistes, and other background facts. The cost? Anything. That means that it’s basically a way to make a small donation, even if it’s $2. Yet the number of people who refused to part with even a measley dollar for a booklet was staggering. Many of them had been dropped off from luxury cars from BMWs to Porsches.
Find out how to support the SRT here.
All said, this was yet another worthy production, and the experience of enjoying the beauty of Shakespeare’s language and the timelessness of his themes, while sprawled on a picnic mat in the open air is one of the most unusual treats you can give yourself. Lose yourself for almost three hours of magic and wonder, and then leave with appreciation of the power of language and theatre to communicate universal themes and deliver Life lessons that can shape the way we Live, if we but heed them.