Walking up to the main entrance for the final opening of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival’s 2013 season, it was surprising to realize that the usual spit-and-polished brass fanfare were wearing new clothes: a decidedly jazzy rendition of the original theme performed on snare drum, tenor saxophone, clarinet, violin and trombone. Naturally not carrying as far outdoors as their usual counterparts, this rendition seemed more spoof than update of the well-known call to the theatre.
Once inside Festival Theatre, it was soon apparent that Antoni Cimolino’s vision of The Merchant of Venice would complement the swing-era ditty just performed outside and produce the same knock-off effect. With such a strong “urtext” more than able to make the Bard’s points in 1598 Venice/Belmont, there needed to be a strong artistic reason to reset the tale of racism and moneylending during the rise to power of Mussolini and Hitler. Rather than subtly have the time shift take on extra relevancy, this production—like the wayward minstrels wandering the hallowed grounds—was so “on the nose” (replete with radio music interrupted by Il Duce and the Führer’s dictatorial voices) that the overall effect was much closer to parody than purposeful insight. Given such a marvellous cast and crew, more’s the pity that entertainment spoiled the art that could have been.
Accordingly, Shylock (on its own, a gritty, utterly believable performance by Scott Wentworth) is oddly used by Cimolino to achieve his political aims and set up the near-melodramatic final sound cue. As artistic director, he may well have taken this late 1930s approach knowing that Fiddler on the Roof (also featuring Wentworth as Tevye—cross-reference below—who stepped up at the last minute when health issues caused Brian Bedford to withdraw from the challenging role) was also on the playbill (in that storied musical set in Russia, Jews and Nazi-like bullies figure prominently along with an inter-faith marriage).
The balancing, humourous subplot (thanks to her father’s will, the beautiful Portia must put her suitors through a gold-silver-bronze test before they can claim her hand and fortune), starts off with promise (the trio of ladies-in-waiting as “chorus” are a hoot) but sails much too far into the realm of farce when the Prince of Arragon (Antoine Yared, engagingly delivers all that he’s asked) has his turn at the gleaming chests.
The queer card flitted in and out of the action (does bachelor Antonio’s—Tom McCamus—love for Bassanio—Tyrell Crews—evolve around a pound of flesh that has nothing to do with Shylock’s merciless quest for bloody revenge?) but is not really played one way or the other (yet a pink triangle armband somewhere in the crowd might have further reinforced Cimolino’s vision).
With so much political and social intrigue already in the original, pushing those envelopes even further in the 20th century—like the outside minstrels prior to curtain—weakened the playwright’s intent rather than reinforcing it. JWR