The quality of mercy: Sydney Shakespeare Company’s The Merchant of Venice

Written in 1596, Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice is generally classified as one of his comedies, along with masterpieces such as A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Twelfth Night and Much Ado About Nothing. While there certainly are comedic elements to Merchant, it is not altogether a comedic play in the definition generally used to classify Shakespeare’s work. While it does encompass many scenes of focused around the idea of love, the titular merchant is accosted by Shylock, a money-lender, because he defaulted on the loan of 3,000 ducats and is thus required to pay the bond – the infamous pound of flesh.
It’s a dark play, full of politicking and financial matters, but underneath it all is that wonderful Shakespearean sense of humanity and life, the very lifeblood that has made him and his works what they are today. In the hands of the Sydney Shakespeare Company, their Merchant of Venice is a clear, honest and simple telling of this problematic play, one which fills the tiny sixty-five-seat TAP Gallery theatre with a warmth and generosity of spirit which is often lost in the hands of others.

Perhaps inspired by Christopher Marlowe’s hit-play, The Jew of Malta, Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice can be read as vilifying the character of Shylock as a kind of monster. However, in Shakespeare’s play, Shylock becomes more than just the Elizabethan caricature of a ‘Jewish villain’; in true Shakespearean style, the caricature is subverted and popular expectation is turned on its head. Initially established as a monstrous figure, by the time Shylock enters the harrowing trial scene that comprises the entirety of Act IV, his villainy has been eroded to the point where we can see what motivates him, what makes him breathe and tick; the oft-quoted “If you prick us, do we not bleed?” speech, when performed well, is gut-wrenchingly affecting – Shylock is no longer a villain, but a human.
Set on a set with whitewashed brick walls, and a gauze curtain in a corner hiding the three chests, this company’s ethos of “producing simple and intimate performances of the [Shakespearean] canon, with a focus on actors, clarity and text” is well executed and clear. Dressed (for the most part) in suits and smart clothes, Venice is easily transposed to a contemporary city, where the use of smart-phones sits unobtrusively with items like scrolls and swords, and does not detract from Steven Hopley’s direction nor the play’s words or style. It is perhaps due to the cast and the simplicity of their playing that the production works as well as it does; led by Mark Lee’s Shylock, Lizzie Schebesta’s Portia, and Anthony Campenella’s Antonio, the cast speak the text with honesty and integrity, and in some cases it sounds as natural as our own speech – not an easy feat.
As the titular merchant, Antonio is barely on stage – he has a meager six scenes on stage, though it is his plight which encompasses the entire fourth act, and he is in a sense the point around which the whole play pivots. Part of The Merchant of Venice’s warmth comes from its structure – according to John Bell, it has “all the best elements of courtroom drama, romantic comedy and melodramatic cliffhanger. At its centre is a fascinating love triangle between Antonio, Bassanio, and Portia.” It is this love triangle – like those found in Twelfth Night, As You Like It, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream – that keeps the play’s action rolling over; when coupled with Shylock and the impending repayment date on his loan, the play’s twin plotlines converge into one of those deliciously clever endings which Shakespeare loved. Not only does Portia save Antonio’s life (in disguise as Balthasar, a lawyer) but her [literal] interpretation of the law redeems Antonio’s life in exchange for half of Shylock’s estate, and helps to give the play its ‘romantic’ ending, effectively breaking the love triangle.
Portia, as played by Lizzie Schebesta, is strong and charismatic, and Schebesta’s performance is, alongside Mark Lee’s Shylock, the strongest in the production. Her wholly-believable turn as lawyer Balthasar not only helps to cement Antonio’s freedom, but showcases her impressive and beguiling range as an actor. She interprets the Venetian law with forensic skill, and throws Shylock’s literal interpretation of the law and his contract with Antonio back at him: when sharing the stage with Mark Lee in the court scene, Schebesta more than holds her own and it’s a hard choice where to look, who to follow.
Hopley’s direction here, like the quality of mercy, is not strained – under his assured and gentle hand, the exacting justice demanded by Lee’s Shylock is directly contrasted by the elegance of Portia and Antonio’s brand of forgiveness. This mercy must be freely given, and must be pure and free from any impediments; likewise, the playing style generated by Hopley and his company’s ethos is the living embodiment of this mercy, a testament to the enduring power of Shakespeare’s innate humanity and skill at writing people, not characters or cariacatures.
In the words of John Bell, for all its “cruelty, its racial and religious tensions, its running commentary on a materialistic and exclusive society, Merchant could be a cheesy romantic comedy. As it is, it remains a troubling, ambivalent and exciting work, both a challenge and delight for actors and directors.” Part of its enduring charm is its lyricism and vicious rhetoric, its vision of the sacredness of life and love – two principles which cannot be traded, violated or tarnished, not even for a “wilderness of monkeys.”

Theatre playlist: 23. The Quality of Mercy, Michelle Shocked

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