The Merchant of Venice

Mark Lee is nothing short of mesmerising as the unfortunate Shylock in this Sydney Shakespeare Company production.
The Merchant of Venice

Shylock the Jew has spent his life as an alien in a city where he is despised, spat on, humiliated and excoriated for his race and his religion. He is driven near distraction when, for some ill defined reason, his daughter steals his money and runs off with a Christian.

Now, humiliated before the Duke of Venice’s Christian Kangaroo Court, we find him on his knees, forced to give up the rest of his property by way of a bequest to his daughter’s abductor, and to renounce his religion to save his life. He slinks away, popping a pill for his dyspepsia, and our heroes, the good Christian boys and girls are now free to frolic into Act Five.

Act Five, by the way, is one of the most irrelevant pieces of theatre ever written. It really belongs in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Who can guess why it is there? My fancy is that Shakespeare, not himself a natural racist, when handsomely commissioned by some anti-Semitic nobleman to write the play, decided to try to distract the audience post Shylock’s humiliation.

It doesn’t matter. What matters is that when, at the climax of the play in Act Four, Gratiano gleefully rips Shylock’s yarmulke from his head, I was not only burning with anger, but quite literally thought I was going to vomit. Fortunately for the rather well dressed woman in front of me, I was able to force back the bile.

Now you have to say that if a production can wrench that sort of emotion from an old theatre hand like me, Steve Hopley and his Sydney Shakespeare Company have to be doing something right. Certainly Bell Shakespeare has never got me that worked up.

It has been argued by some commentators that the play is not anti-Semitic, even that it is pro-Semitic. However I’m sure the same academics could make a case for King Lear being a comedy or Macbeth being an Irishman. However the fact of the matter, as everyone knows, is that it is an irredeemable racist rant. Fortunately Hopley has not tried to dance around the issue, and has tackled it head on.

One is tempted to ask, with all the truly great Shakespearean plays to choose from, why has he decided to go with this one? But perhaps that is not a valid question for a reviewer to ask. The fact of the matter is that, having chosen it, he presents a highly professional production.

Mark Lee is nothing short of mesmerising as the unfortunate Shylock. Anthony Campanella as the merchant and Alex Nicholas as Bassanio make a powerful and touching couple, though I personally believe Hopley’s decision to direct a sexual subtext between them is not supported by the anything in the play. All the acting was good. I particularly liked the chemistry between Richard Hilliar’s Lorenzo and Renaye Loryman as Shylock’s daughter. The only reservation I would have is with Craig Annis as Gartiano. I think he plays the role as unnecessarily camp. Although in fairness he is very convincing when he has the ‘opportunity’ to humiliate Shylock in this, the most unpalatable and poorly written of Shakespeare’s plays, and perhaps (Third Reich poets aside) the worst piece of anti-Semitism in 400 years.

Rating: 4 stars out of 5

Sydney Shakespeare Company presents

The Merchant of Venice

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Steve Hopley

Starring Mark Lee and Lizzie Schebesta


Tap Gallery, Darlinghurst

Until 24 August


Victor Kline

Monday 12 August, 2013

About the author

Victor Kline started his working life as Sydney's youngest barrister. He is now Editor of the Federal Court Reports, and an award winning playwright, director and actor who has worked extensively in theatre in Sydney and off Broadway in New York. He is also author of the novel Rough Justice and the bestselling memoir The House at Anzac Parade. His new novel The Story of the Good American is publishing shortly.