The Merchant, and the Women, of Venice

In a first for alt.theatre, a dynamic duo takes on a review! Here Marie Horgan and Eric Danis share their impressions of Bard on the Beach’s production of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice

The Show: The Merchant of Venice

The Venue: Howard Family Stage, Bard on the Beach Vanier Park, Vancouver BC

Returning to Vanier Park for the fourth time in twenty-eight years, Bard on the Beach’s 2017 production of The Merchant of Venice features a modern and feminist reimagining of the 16th century play. While our conversations in between acts began as discussions of whether the “Venice 2017” setting worked, by the end of the play we noted how strongly director Nigel Shawn Williams chose to highlight gender politics almost more so than religious strife.

Intermission:

            “I love the set! I’ve never seen them lay out the Howard Family Stage this way. Usually, the stage comes down the middle of the theatre, sort of like a catwalk. But this time they’ve gone for a more ‘theatre in the round’ feel, which I think works really well. And I like how they opened with graphics of the stock market. I’m finding, though, that it can be a bit hard to see and hear, because the cast turns their backs to the audience a lot. The only thing I’m not really getting is the point of modernizing Merchant, apart from what’s obvious.”

“What’s obvious?”

“The religious tensions and the patriarchy stuff. In the program they say that those are what the focuses will be, and of course both issues are relevant today, but it seems too obvious, like it’s been done time and time again.”

“And it doesn’t quite fit, I thought. The kinds of blatant hate we see in Merchant happen in many places, and certainly could happen here, but why this show, now, like this? I feel like the director (Nigel Shawn Williams) is trying too hard to be edgy, and I feel like all of the characters are angry, all the time.”

“I’m not a huge fan of the modernization. I don’t know what the director could have done instead, but he’s obviously got a certain vision for the production, which is cool. How he wanted that vision to translate is another question, but I don’t think it’s coming across very well.”

“I think he’s trying too hard. There are certain parts of the show that feel like bad jokes. I was offended, and, don’t get me wrong here, I like being offended, but only when there’s a lesson to be learned. Maybe I’ve missed the lesson.”

“Right, and it could just be us. Others can choose for themselves. One thing that felt out of place – which for a modernization really shouldn’t – were the cellphones. Only two characters really used cellphones, and they just seem to function as throwaway props. And while we’re still on the topic of time period, it feels like the Belmont scenes are staged back in Elizabethan times while the rest of Venice is in 2017. But that’s purely based on the sets, with Belmont’s columns, chests, and drapes. Everywhere else has wire chairs, glasses, and, heck, even cocktails.”

“Alright, so we’re a bit confused…”

Post-Show:

“I want to start off by saying that Olivia Hutt stole the show as Portia. The director made it about her, plain and simple. I’m not certain from memory but I think they even changed some things around to paint her even better than she was in Shakespeare’s original. Even if they didn’t, it certainly felt different. I thought she was weak in the first act but I was deceived.  At first it was unclear what they were doing to ‘crush the patriarchy,’ and I’ll say no more except that tone changes everything. Bravo Olivia Hutt for that character arc!”

“She was very strong. In the first act her character was stiff, which, for me, didn’t translate as weakness. I felt that it worked, given how suitors were constantly being forced upon her. But her strength carried into the second act with a different, perhaps much more obvious strength. She commanded the show at that point, and that definitely seemed deliberate. Especially in the trial scene, wow that was tense!”

“I was sweating. But the abruptness of some of the characters’ anger still bothered me. Sometimes they would yell and it felt contrived.”

“I agree, but I’m also not a fan of sudden loud noises.”

“Again, the director seems to want the show to be flashy, fast, and loud. I think most if not all of the issues that we’ve had probably come from some choice made by the director. It seems as though he made a conscious effort to ensure that every character was a downright awful person except for Portia, and maybe Nerissa too (Luisa Jojic). The focus, then, turns this show into somewhat of a feminist retelling of Merchant. We didn’t get as much religious tension, apart from what’s obvious from the text.”

Olivia Hutt and Charlie Gallant in The Merchant of Venice

“I can see why Williams (the director) chose to do that. The Jew vs. Christian angle is the obvious one to take, and likely the expected one too. It’s been done and done again. So it would be difficult, from the director’s perspective, to do something so radically different with that angle that he’d get any attention for it. But hold on, if we’re following the feminism angle, what about Jessica (Carmela Sison)? She didn’t come off as strong as the other women. Nerissa, for example, isn’t supposed to be a forefront character, but even she sticks out as strong, if only in presence. What I’m trying to say is that Portia is the only character that one could make the feminism angle obvious with, given how many lines she has. And they gave her the last line! It changes the script; in the original, Gratiano has the last line.”

“Don’t forget Saleria (Adele Noronha) and Solania (Kate Besworth), as opposed to Solario and Salarino. Their characters were feminized, and they were just as (if not more) brutal towards Shylock than many of the men. While neither was painted as a likeable character, the production’s feminist backbone came through them in a different way.”

“Definitely, but apart from its feminist undertones I still don’t understand why Merchant was modernized. It could have been set in an older time period with the same focus on and renaming of the female characters. I guess, at the end of the day, Bard needed a fresh take on Merchant, or Williams had his vision and went with it.”

“And, again, the way they’ve rearranged an old space for a new show helps with that. The actors also did a great job of performing group mentality, especially with the men and their ‘locker-room talk’.”

“In that way the modernization does work, because we continue to see that sort of dialogue victimizing women, which only furthers the play’s feminist stance. It might just be that we both know Merchant from before that makes the modern adaptation confusing. I heard quite a few people saying they liked the updated take, so we’ll leave that open ended.”

“Overall, it’s worth seeing if you have an open mind. If you’re familiar with Merchant, some of the tackier modern elements might bother you, but there are some truly stellar performances up on that stage.”

-by Marie Horgan and Eric Danis

Luisa Jojic, Nadeem Phillip, and Olivia Hutt in The Merchant of Venice

The Merchant of Venice, produced by Bard on the Beach

Artistic Director: Christopher Gaze

Director of Merchant: Nigel Shawn Williams

Run: June 22nd – September 16th 2017

Cast (in program order): Edward Foy, Charlie Gallant, Chirag Naik, Kamyar Pazandeh, Adele Noronha, Kate Besworth, Carmela Sison, Olivia Hutt, Luisa Jojic, Paul Moniz de Sá, Nadeem Phillip, Warren Kimmel, Andrew Cownden

Costume Designer: Drew Facey

Scenic Designer: Marshall McMahen

Lighting Designer: Adrian Muir

Sound Designer: Patrick Pennefather

Projection Designer: Conor Moore

Head Voice & Text Coach: Alison Matthews

Fight Director: Josh Reynolds

Stage Manager: Joanne P.B. Smith

Assistant Stage Manager: Ruth Bruhn

Apprentice Stage Manager: Jennifer Stewart

Directing Apprentice: Wendy Bollard

 

Author Bio(s)

Marie Horgan: When she isn’t out catching some local theatre, Marie is pursuing her MA in English Literature at Simon Fraser University with a focus in law and literary criticism. She has just moved back to Vancouver after four years in Nova Scotia and abroad. Where her studies will take her remains to be seen (and she likes it that way), but, for now, she enjoys striking up conversations about how we read and write, and allows for just enough precariousness to keep things interesting.

Eric Danis: Eric is currently studying for a Masters degree in English Literature at SFU and hopes to be finished by January of 2019. In his spare time, Eric has imaginary conversations with imaginary people, which he then writes down with imagined faithfulness to an imagined sense of truth.  He calls the result a novel.  No one has yet to agree with him.

 

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