It’s not always easy to sit through the anti-Semitism of Shakespeare’s ‘The Merchant of Venice’ and Sport for Jove don’t shy away from it but what director Richard Cottrell does really well in this version is find the humour in the play to release its tension when we most sorely need it to.
Set in the 1920’s/30’s we are witness to the events of the play in a new context- dabble in the stock market and see prosperity crumble when your ‘ships’ crash. Antonio (James Lugton), rich and generous to his own, falls victim to his creditors in the form of Jewish money-lender Shylock (John Turnbull) and Shylock, angry and spurned by betrayal and religious persecution certainly wants his pound of flesh.
There are a number of things to commend this production to an audience. Firstly, the fine performances of its cast- especially Lizzie Schebesta as Portia, whose comic timing is impeccable and contrasted to her ability to portray status and gravitas. Turnbull and Lugton were also highlights and Damien Strouthos’ whiney and childish Gratiano captured the petulant traits of entitlement perfectly and Aaron Tsindos as the Prince of Morocco was a genuine crowd pleaser.
The play also created lasting images that pack quite the punch. There was an audible gasp from the audience when Antonio gives Shylock’s daughter Jessica (Lucy Heffernan) a look in the closing moments that suggested that her conversion and marriage to a Christian made her no less despicable in his eyes. The hate was palpable and disturbing and made each and every one of us uncomfortable. This juxtaposes with the humour of the marriage proposals to Portia and the colourful characters that attempt to win her fortune and heart.
Anna Gardiner’s set suffers a little from the need to be portable and lacks the lustre of other Sport for Jove productions but its versatility also gave it a few surprising conversions that allowed us to be transported to interior and exterior spaces easily; its art deco façade also serving the play’s setting effectively.
This play has not always sat well with me but this is the first production of it that I have seen that has captured both sides of the play and allowed us to feel the gamut of emotions that are inherent in its content. This is a faithful and colourful rendition of Shakespeare’s problem play and well worth the effort to see it.