JWR Articles: Live Event - The Merchant of Venice (Director: Richard Rose) - June 24, 2007
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The Merchant of Venice

2.5 2.5

Counterfeit production forfeits truth

Treating life as a game gets an enthusiastic boost with Richard Rose’s keep-‘em-laughing production of The Merchant of Venice. But why not? In a play where suitors choose a wife (and considerable inheritance) by solving the riddle of three caskets—only one of which contains the winning “counterfeit” portrait of their future intended—and a debt owed to the Venetian version of Money Mart can be marked paid-in-full by forfeiting a pound of one’s own flesh, there’s more than enough material for belly laughs galore.

But don’t stop there! Further giggles and guffaws can be harvested by playing the queer card: not as don’t-ask-don’t-tell, just-below-the-surface intrigue; instead, use clutching hands and more-than-innocent kisses to out the hilarity big time and banish such lines as “Sweet Bassanio” to the sidelines of discreet innuendo. No “unchecked” rumours for Rose.

So why complain? Most of the first night audience had a wonderful time.

From the opening Gregorian chant’s quick metamorphosis to a two-face funk, this party began early. In modern dress sporting Venetian-ball masks, the revelers cajoled and made merry while a succulent stuffed pig held silent metaphorical court on the banquet table. Viewed on its own, this fantastic moment could have been an outtake from either Amadeus or Eyes Wide Shut. Instead, it was an executive summary of Shylock’s fate, who, by party’s end, would also be skewered and roasted, Christian style.

As the unrepentant moneylender (by law, Christians couldn’t charge any interest in Venice, leaving the market open to the world’s shopkeepers) Graham Greene’s five scenes are the hub around which the rest of the ever-controversial play must turn. For his part, Greene started somewhat pedantically, delivering his lines “just so,” valiantly enduring the taunts of Gratiano (Gareth Potter unleashed ended up adding more pity than contempt for Shylock’s comeuppance) and the defection of his daughter, Jessica (Sara Topham, saddled with a post-elopement dress that had her in stiff competition with the fool’s Don-Cherry-gaudy sports coat) to the genuflectors.

The consummate film actor, Greene steps away from his fun-loving tormentors as his inner-rage seethes more physically than in his speech (that special skill, no doubt, will be honed to telling effect as the Shakespearean experience grows). Unforgettable is the look of defeat that takes up vanquished residence in his otherwise stoic countenance. Moments later, he gets the last “laugh” by turning his back on his wily debasers, offering a digital salute before disappearing. Another Hannibal Lecter is born—perhaps Canada Council/Telefilm funding has already been secured for The Merchant of Venice II: Revenge of the Pauper.

Yet Greene’s role/performance is almost lost in the shuffle of bawdy humour and cross-dressing hijinks that Rose adds to keep things humming along. In one secret-is-revealed musical intervention—complete with song sheets, nearly four-part harmony and conducted by the bride-in-waiting, it’s the “Ding, Dong” lyric that convinces Bassanio (Sean Arbuckle) to get the lead out and solve his financial and hormonal crunch by marrying Portia (Severn Thompson lacks verbal clarity in her first scenes and is at her/his best when impersonating a lawyer—male, of course).

An undisguised nod to the market share of American Idol is the wooers’ follies. Portia’s previous choose-that-casket contestants are plopped onto museum-style plinths and, one at time, have their deficiencies described to her waiting-gentlewoman, Nerissa (Raquel Duffy). And so the stereotypes (German as a drunkard, French as wimp) that Shakespeare alludes to in his delightfully wicked descriptions (“He is every man in no man.”) get unexpected cartoon reinforcement as the gentlemen come to life, tickle the funny bone and hauled off their pedestals. The Scottish lord is the showstopper. Pulling a “fragrant” rose from the nether region of his tartan kilt then reeling at its scent went miles beyond an over-the-top gag and was instantly an under-the-bottom bathroom yuck! Fear ye not: much of the throng howled in delight.

Meanwhile, back in the plot, perennial bachelor Antonio (Scott Wentworth) borrows 3,000 ducats from Shylock so that Bassanio, the smouldering love of his life, can tart up and woo Portia in the style she deserves. The merchant’s capital is tied up on the high seas in the form of import/export ships (teeming with all manner of sailors who might well be glad to show more than their appreciation to the global entrepreneur when they reach port), so is forced to use credit to assist Bassanio, who, likewise, might demonstrate his affection, er, below decks.

Again, the torment is largely lost as the cornucopia of fun and games tromps over the turmoil of unrequited love and settles for rolling rather than roiling in the aisles. JWR

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