A new rendition for the Modern Era
“The Merchant of Venice” pleases audiences with inventive staging
Published: Wednesday, October 3, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, October 3, 2012 12:10
The Actors From The London Stage, an acting troupe with only five actors, came to Wellesley from Sept. 27 to Sept. 29 to perform William Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice.” Like most productions of Shakespeare’s plays at the College, the play was well-attended. However, instead of using period costume pieces and various props to set the scene, the actors took a minimalist approach, using few props and practically no costumes. In addition, the actors, Nicola Alexis, Michael Palmer, Noel White, Alinka Wright and Henry Everett, split the twenty plus characters in the play among themselves, each playing a major character and several secondary ones.
In “The Merchant of Venice,” a young Venetian, Bassanio, wants to “woo” Portia, a Venetian heiress whose father has created a puzzle for her suitors to solve in order to ask for her hand in marriage. However, Bassanio needs money to stand out among Portia’s many right suitors. He persuades Antonio, his melancholy friend, to lend him the money he needs. However, Anotonio’s money is tied up in trading ventures abroad, so he cannot help Bassanio right away. Instead, Antonio suggests that Bassanio go to Shylock, a Jewish moneylender, and borrow the money in Antonio’s name. Shylock agrees, but stipulates that, should he default, Antonio shall pay him a pound of his own flesh.
The Actors From the London Stage opened the play with a comic introduction of the characters, moving from seat to seat and using various hats and headpieces to explain which characters they would be playing. In Act One, Scene One, White first plays the merchant Antonio, then moves to Gratiano, then back to Antonio with the cleverly planned use of the line “you are marvelously changed” to switch back into the role of Gratiano. White was especially talented at switching between characters; the characters he played—Antonio, Gratiano, Tubal and Lancelot—were often in the same scene. Regardless of the invisible props, he and the other actors never failed to remember where something or someone was supposed to be.
At the center of the play is a centuries old religious feud between Jews and Christians. In most renditions of the play, this feud takes the lead, and the love stories and trials of Portia’s suitors take a backseat. However, although this version of the play did emphasize the importance of Shylock and Antonio’s feud, the production also provided the audience with immense comic relief. In Act Two, Scene Nine, Everett, as the Prince of Aragon, pulls out an invisible sword, farcically imitating the sound of a sword leaving its hilt while remaining completely in character. He had the entire audience doubling over with laughter. The humor continued throughout the play with Lancelot’s argument with himself, the arrival of his father Old Gobbo, some very Gollum-esque lines delivered by Salerio and Solanio, and the continuous switching of characters and disguised identities. It was apparent that the actors strove toward and accomplished a balanced version of Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice.”
The second half of the play, the part that includes three marriages—Lorenzo to Jessica, Bassanio to Portia, and Gratiano to Nerissa—was by far the strongest. They managed to make Bassanio and Portia’s relationship as central to the plot as Shylock and Antonio’s feud. The actors also took an unconventional spin on Jessica and Lorenzo’s love-hate relationship, making them a couple with complex issues, trying to make their relationship work, rather than a couple with a vicious feud, as is often portrayed. The play featured Bassanio and Portia, who seem to instantly fall in love with each other, Gratiano and Nerissa, who have more of a sexually charged relationship, and Lorenzo and Jessica, a couple who, passing the honeymoon stage, realize something’s rotten in the state of Denmark.
This rendition of “The Merchant of Venice” truly represents the modern era. The actors engage the audience with the power of Shakespeare’s lines rather than allowing props, costumes and scenery to take away from their meaning. Shylock’s hatred for Antonio can be seen less as the rants of a bitter Jewish money-lender, and more like a cry against society and the way his people were treated. In fact, Shylock was played as a complex and sympathetic character who loses everything to “the Christians” by the end of the play.
The play required the audience to use their imagination in ways that viewers of today’s entertainment, with CGI and other special effects, might not be accustomed—a valuable exercise. As with any rendition, it was not perfect; there were times that the exchanges among the cast were barely understood and the constant switching of characters bred confusion. However, those moments were almost completely overshadowed by the strong storyline, the pure talent and hard work of the actors, and the play’s comedic tone. As Antonio says in Act One, Scene One, “I hold the world but as the world, Gratiano —A stage where every man must play a part.” A part (or several) these actors did play and play well.