Any production of The Merchant of Venice hinges on the core issue of anti-Semitism and how to treat this element in the play. The current Stratford Festival production, directed by Richard Rose, attempts to turn the tables on the Christians by highlighting their selfishness and vicious taunts. By contrast, Shylock, played by veteran Canadian film actor Graham Greene, is understated, reserved, and detached. Add to this a streamlined set comprised of a simple vertical entrance center stage, a translucent horizontal bar running across it, and persistent genuflecting among the Christian characters, and strong Christian imagery dominating a production in which the Jewish characters literally have no place.
The play opens with a revelry, featuring actors in pig masks, a large pork roast, and a mock sacrifice of a figure wearing a bull’s head, who later turns out to be Antonio. Scott Wentworth, a long time Stratford regular, plays Antonio with uncommon hesitancy, and his usual dynamic stage presence is oddly missing in this production. This is a very unfortunate occurrence, since the Antonio-Shylock relationship is key to the play’s dramatic pulse. Couple this with Graham Greene’s highly understated Shylock, and the entire production seems to be missing its core energy and in effect runs flat. Wentworth, whose past characters have always been extremely well-crafted and powerful, here seems uncertain and underdeveloped. Graham Greene, best known as a film actor, has yet to break out of his quiet, more intimate acting style to make his character work onstage. While he does deliver his lines competently, he is consistently difficult to hear and his restraint does not do Shylock justice. One hopes both of these issues will work themselves out as the cast gets more comfortable and the pacing tightens up.
Several other aspects mar this production. Costume designer Phillip Clarkson paints with a palette of whites, beige and taupe contrasted with strong reds and blacks, creating a solid but subdued effect much in keeping with the central performances. Clarkson however, chooses to mash up various time periods with a decidedly postmodern haute couture style, so that one character may be wearing breeches and hose with a dinner jacket and a punk t-shirt. Antonio spends one scene in a ridiculous jacket fringed with what seems to be a kilted skirt, and both Portia and Nerissa sport absurd dresses with poofed skirts and trains that make them look like they’re about to take off like wedding cake versions of Mary Poppins. At best, the costumes are benign and can be ignored. Mostly, however, they are distracting and diminishing.
Another distinguishing feature of this production is the presentation of the Prince of Morocco, played with only the barest modicum of humor by Jamie Robinson. Clearly the Stratford Festival is still feeling the sting of controversy stirred up by its 2001 production, when the Canadian-Muslim community protested vociferously against their slapstick portrayal of the prince. In response, Rose has flipped the interpretation entirely, playing the Prince as a valid suitor to whom Portia is honestly attracted. The scene works well enough, but the Prince’s absurdity is a comic conceit written into the play, and it’s designed for comic relief as well as to contrast Portia’s disdain for all suitors other than Bassanio. By playing this element straight, Portia’s character becomes admittedly more complex and her attraction to Bassanio takes on a distinctly questionable tone, which is darker, yet conveniently appropriate to the play.
It is unfortunate that this interpretation seems to be overtly motivated by current affairs, resulting in a scene that ends up seeming safe and convoluted rather than inventive. It is interesting to note that making fun of Spaniards is still in vogue, however, and Tim MacDonald, along with a bevy of apish courtiers, plays the Prince of Aragon to his full comedic capacity. On the other hand, Sean Arbuckle’s Bassanio is quite captivating, and Ron Kennell once again proves his worth in a standout comedic turn as Launcelot Gobbo. Severn Thompson’s no-nonsense Portia is powerful and effective, with occasional flashes of delightful humor. Overall, however, the production never really comes together. It is far too cluttered by superficial fluff such as costumes and the occasional bizarre bit of action, sloppy entrances, and unimaginative staging. For a production that underlines the hostile Christian elements of the play, this is one Merchant that really lacks conviction.