So I was pleasantly surprised by Genesian’s offering of ‘The Merchant of Venice’ directed by 22 year old Constantine Costi. It’s not perfect but it makes some clear choices in its vision and let’s not forget that this play is problematic. The anti-Semitic content is difficult to reconcile and even though we rationalise that Shakespeare wrote this hundreds of years ago, to see the humiliation and animosity towards Jews that culminate in renouncing their religion by choice or punishment so they can find love or peace and those that fight it are left destitute as a Christian lesson, it's hard to dress up in a contemporary context. It can’t help but affect your judgement as audience or even as a director in deciding how to communicate this to an audience who will view this hopefully very differently from when it was written.
So Costi’s choice to place the play in what I call the ‘Cubana’ setting, 1950’s carefree abandon, like an endless summer that leaves you unprepared for the cold, serves then as an interesting contrast to Shylock’s presentation as conservative, traditional, overprotective stereotypical Jewish father and financer.
John Harrison’s design is a striking display of the climate of smoke and mirrors whose surface is flashy and gaudy but hollow inside. The design encapsulates the masking of the underbelly of the city of Venice and Alice Joel’s costumes complement this Pleasantville vision.
The setting is a bold choice and means that the first half, when it’s at its height, runs you over in pace and energy and the text can get lost. The second half plays with the folly of this lifestyle and its fallout and works much better. It’s just an issue of control perhaps more than setting. Here’s where a young director can most benefit from an experienced team: how to control your vision on stage. The first half staggers out of the gate and then, like an express train, does not stop for passengers until it arrives at interval. The colour, music and spectacle are all visually appealing but it compromises story in this relentless rhythm and sometimes competes with what is happening on stage at the time. And then enter Shylock (Geoff Sirmai) who grounds the first half with his seasoned acting and a standout performance.
And the acting in the play is good. Tiffany Stoekler’s Portia, Stephen Lloyd Coombs’ Bassanio and Harriet Gordon Anderson as Jessica probably capture with Sirmai the characters, intent and language of the play with the most skill and ease. A couple of cast fall into moments of ‘playing the problem’- obvious emotions and states, and whilst finding glee in some genuinely comic vignettes, they don’t always connect with the narrative. But consistently, it’s a strong cast of young actors who show a lot of promise in the future.
If the first half acts like a horny teenager, it grows up in the second half and becomes a mature adult. The court scene draws us into the world of the play. I’m engaged, pace and rhythm suddenly match intent and ideas. Deliberate and manipulative, tension enters the second half of the play where it had been missing.
If audience had doubts at interval, the second half redeemed them and people left far more satisfied. But I love that Costi took risks and in time he will learn maturity of control and building of tension, the second half was proof of that.
This play will not appeal to all the old die-hard Genesians (one older gentleman cornered my friend and I with some very strong opinions in this regard) but most will appreciate the new life Shakespeare’s play has been given. It’s not whisky served straight up, more of a fruity and deceptively potent cocktail blend. And for the few it will alienate, take comfort that the next Agatha Christie play is just around the corner.
It will raise the eternal question- what suffers and what grows in the directorial vision? Am I being true to the text? I think so.