‘Merchant of Venice’ well done, but missing that certain something
© Submitted photo by David Hou
Scott Wentworth (centre) as Shylock with members of the company in “The Merchant of Venice.”
The day after an exciting rendition of “Othello,” I took in the opening night of “The Merchant of Venice,” performed in Stratford’s iconic Festival Theatre.
As in “Othello,” sight, sound and costuming are stylish and eye-pleasing, reflecting sizeable technical budgets, together with experienced designers.
Set in Mussolini’s fascist Italy in the 1930s, with jack-booted black-shirts patrolling the streets of Venice in the leadup to the Second World War, during which Jews in occupied Europe were to pay such a terrible price, the temporal and interpretive setting is not new, but it remains potent and valid.
The play opens with the wealthy merchant, Antonio (Tom McCamus), proclaiming his melancholia in the midst of pleasure-loving, carnivalesque Christian Venice.
“In sooth, I know not why I am so sad.” He is joined by his spendthrift young protégé, Bassanio (Tyrell Crews), who enters with tennis racquets in hand, seeking a loan from Antonio to finance a wooing expedition to win the hand of a wealthy heiress.
Generous to a fault, Antonio underwrites Bassanio’s expensive venture by taking out a substantial loan from a Jewish money-lender whom he despises, Shylock, who deviously proposes that a “merry bond” be entered into, the penalty of default on Antonio’s part being a pound of his flesh, “to be cut off and taken/in what part of your body it pleaseth me.”
Business-suited, bespectacled Shylock is identified as Jewish by his skullcap, by his idiom, and by his religious observance, in contrast with the amoral, fun-loving Christians.
Scott Wentworth is thoroughly convincing in the role, whether in seeming triumph or in adversity.
Bassanio’s wooing target, Portia (Michelle Giroux), makes her first appearance in horse-riding gear — helmet, jodhpurs, boots, crop — poised and elegant and with nothing much to do, except making sharp-tongued fun of potential suitors to the amusement of her waiting gentlewoman and confidante, Nerissa (Sophia Walker).
The first act clips briskly along, with the 95-minute duration seeming much shorter, leaving us to anticipate the upcoming courtroom battle for Antonio’s life between Portia and Shylock. But the second act does not quite fulfil the play’s potential, wherein lies my one reservation — though a significant one.
Veteran McCamus plays Antonio with a very restricted emotional palette. He declares in his opening line that he does not understand why he is so sad, although little sadness is actually manifested, nor much other feeling in McCamus’s pianissimo reading of the role.
Admittedly, he does berate the Jewish money-lender and he smiles with satisfaction when the “merry bond” is agreed upon.
But, during the climactic trial scene, in deadly jeopardy, in danger of a pound of flesh being cut from his living body, and even when he bears his breast for Shylock’s sharp-honed knife, he remains imperturbable.
This takes stoicism to an unaffecting extreme, sucking a deal of force out of the powerful scene. While he may fatalistically consider himself “the tainted wether of the flock,” if Antonio doesn’t care, can we?
Directed by Stratford Festival artistic director, Antoni Cimolino, “The Merchant of Venice” is mounted two or three times a week, through to the closing performance on Oct. 18.