Real Canaan Theatre, for their inaugural production of The Merchant of Venice, playing at the Red Sandcastle Theatre, has articulated some rather grand ambitions: “Focusing on human interaction through the medium of classical text, this production seeks to provoke discussion on the transcendence of character, identity politics, and relationship ideals.”
The production, though, doesn’t achieve any of this transcendence and only haphazardly offers moments of compelling theatre.
There are plenty of romantic entanglements, pratfalls and stirring lyricism, but this is one of Shakespeare’s sharper-edged comedies with some potentially tragic set-ups. It is also one of his most controversial plays and has been interpreted as anti-Semitic—its pivotal money-lender character, Shylock, a Jew, portrayed as vengeful, cruel and money-grubbing.
His iconic demand for a “pound of flesh” backfires and he loses everything. To add insult to injury, he is forced, by law, to convert to Christianity. Contemporary audiences are quite discomfited by the notion that this finale was generally intended to be just.
The story is fraught with moral, personal and political intrigue. By removing all reference to Judaism and Christianity, director Christopher Lucas has tried to soften the contentious elements, but has significantly diminished much of the play’s heft. Making Shylock into a more generic immigrant, his attempt to retain themes of prejudice have also rendered the storyline wholly innocuous.
In theory, this is noble, but in practice, this effort is entirely misguided. It is in their specifics that stories are powerful. In the play’s original form, Shylock—though unlikeable—is still an entirely sympathetic character. And much of the original text highlighted the religious hypocrisy that festered within practitioners of both faiths.
It is undeniably true that Shakespeare was writing for an Elizabethan crowd that had considerably different attitudes to our own, but he always conveyed, very compellingly, both sides of any conflict. His work is so dramatically sound and perfectly human, it can withstand quite radical subversion. You can alter much of his plays’ traditional intentions while still honouring their specificity and leaving the text intact.
The production itself is quite sloppy. There is no set, which is fine, but designer Carrie Lucas has plastered the back wall of the stage with random pages of printed paper. I recognized many local theatre programs. I don’t understand what purpose this serves.
The performances are hit and miss. With modern, casual dress—a few embellishments to help establish character—the cast play multiple roles to wildly varying degrees of success.
Though she is far too young to properly convey the character’s life experience and cynicism, I was drawn to Kitti Laki’s Shylock. She is presented here as a woman—the word “Jew” often swapped out for “bitch”—and she’s very engaging throughout.
Elyssia Giancola’s Portia and Freya Scerri Diacono’s Nerissa are also highlights, both are funny and endearing.
My favourite performer here is Bridget Ori—as both Antonio and the suitor prince Arragon. Her scene with the three metal chests felt the most naturally comedic.
As Bassanio, Hadley Abrams feels authentic, but underwhelming.
Both Roberto Ercoli and Aaron MacPherson—in all three of their roles—stand out here as disruptively manic and self-aware. Their over-the-top antics are not in line with the rest of the performances. MacPherson’s shtick even undermines the play’s climactic courtroom scene with a pointless and distracting behavioural tick.
In his direction, Lucas encourages this sense of communal play. In another context, this freewheeling could be very exciting, but it doesn’t make for good Shakespeare.
Overall, much of the cast relies too heavily on emphatic gesturing, but there are moments of genuine truth that squeak through. I’m sure everyone involved here is capable of much more focused work, but I imagine this will be, for many Shakespeare enthusiasts, quite disappointing.