REVIEW: The Merchant of Venice | Bell Shakespeare

The Merchant of Venice

Review by Susie Conte


The tour of Bell Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice came to Perth with a bang. It’s a full-blooded adaptation, in modern day dress, on a stage backed by golden curtains. All that glisters is not gold however, and the bitterness of the story is nicely juxtaposed with its staging.

Director Anne-Louise Sarks, in her debut with Bell, has created a cinematic piece of theatre reflecting contemporary audiences’ appetite for multilayered storytelling. Gone is the traditional adaptation of the story of Shylock, the Jewish moneylender, and Antonio, the eponymous character. The central themes are still there – religious freedom, the power of money, justice and class, the ‘other’ – but there is a new story strand that imagines what happens to Shylock and his daughter Jessica after the end of the play. The Merchant of Venice has become a problematic play for its anti-semitism, but Sark’s production holds a mirror up to the racism and doesn’t shy away from what it says about society. Mitchell Butel as Shylock is a quiet, strong character trying to exist as an outsider. His performance here is assured and powerful, and the final image of his broken Shylock sitting at the back of the stage is a condemnation of how to break a man.

The actors remain on stage the entire show and act as witness to all the action that happens. Our main actors, Jo Turner as Antonio and Damien Strouthos as Bassanio stand out in solid performances. The ladies in this production, Jessica Tovey as Portia, Felicity McKay as Jessica, Catherine Davies as Nerissa, are powerful actresses who show their talents. Sarks as director has a deft touch, whose interest in reinterpretation has served her well in the past. She likes to make the women stronger in the shows she makes and this is clear in the catharsis she allows Jessica, Shylock’s daughter. McKay is a revelation in this show. A special mention to Jacob Warner for his laugh-out-loud turn as Launcelot .

The sound design by Max Lyandvert and the lighting design by Paul Jackson complement the storytelling unfolding on the stage, and allow us to focus on the still-relevant and timely words of the Bard.

A special night of theatre at the hands of Bell Shakespeare.