Sophia Walker (left) as Nerissa, Michelle Giroux as Portia and Scott Wentworth as Shylock. Photo by David Hou.
**** (out of 5)
Reviewed by James Karas
At the end of the trial scene in The Merchant of Venice, Shylock is down on his knees. After a lifetime of being insulted, mocked, spurned and humiliated, he is completely destroyed. Portia, his prosecutor, bends down and helps him get up off his knees. It is a magnificent gesture of humanity in a play that seethes with inhumanity and anti-Semitism.
That is how director Antoni Cimolino treats that climactic scene in the current production of the play at the Festival Theatre in Stratford, Ontario.Cimolino sets the play in Italy in the 1930’s when Mussolini was at the height of his powers. Fascist Blackshirts are in evidence but so is the veneer of a civilized society with fine cafes and stylish clothes. Beneath the veneer, however, lies a virulent anti-Semitism that is so engrained that the fine people of Venice do not have the slightest conception of their inhumanity.
Scott Wentworth makes a powerful Shylock. There is no doubt that his anger at the good Christians of Venice is a reaction to their treatment of him. Venetian society is so poisonous that even Jessica, his daughter has become anti-Semitic. When Shylock tries to kiss her she pulls away from him. But Wentworth’s Shylock has a sense of humour and he chuckles about the bigotry of the Venetians and the image of the Jew that they harbor. His chuckle is short lived as things turn from ugly to hideous. A memorable performance by Wentworth.Michelle Giroux gives a fine performance as a statuesque, classy and very attractive Portia.
How do you deal with the noble, generous and upstanding citizens of Venice? Antonio (Tom McCamus) is prepared to give his life for his friend Bassanio (Tyrrell Crewes). The latter has lost his fortune and needs to borrow money to woo Portia. These people will spit in the face of a Jew out of inbred anti-Semitism. Cimolino treats all Antonio’s circle in a business-like fashion, neither excusing them nor trying to amplify their despicable side.
Launcelot Gobbo (Ron Pederson) and Old Gobbo (Victor Ertmanis) are supposed to provide some low humour but unfortunately they are simply not funny.The production starts somewhat slowly and Cimolino resorts to the old Stratford tradition: have people run on and off the stage if things seem to move slowly. Thus in the opening scene, Antonio says one line before people start rushing on the stage and start setting up the café where he will meet his friends.
Things get livelier when we go to Portia’s mansion and suitors come for her hand by way of choosing the right casket. Antoine Yarded as the Prince of Aragon does a whole comedy routine as he tries to decide on which casket to open.
The production does end with several brilliant strokes. As the newly married couples, Portia and Bassanio, Jessica (Sara Farb) and Lorenzo (Tyrone Savage), Nerissa (Sophia Walker) and Gratiano (Jonathan Goad) and the rest of the guests presumably leave the stage, Portia and Jessica remain behind. Portia takes out Shylock’s yarmulke and gives it to Jessica. It is a startling reminder to Jessica of what she is and a supreme act of humanity on the part of Portia.The gesture is short-lived. As the lights dim, we hear sirens blaring in the distance. What we saw was merely a prelude to the holocaust that is about to engulf the world.
Those are the touches that raise the production to brilliant.
The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare opened on August 15 and will run in repertory until October 18, 2013 at the Festival Theatre, Stratford, Ontario. www.stratfordfestival.ca