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Saturday, 17 August 2013

Cimolino knocks it out of the park with a brave Merchant of Venice

The Merchant of Venice, by William Shakespeare
Directed by Antoni Cimolino, designed by Douglas Paraschuk

It is not often a production comes along with a vision so complete - every nuance perfect, every character given a finished arc, every debatable point given a plausible finish - to either the bitter or sweet end - that the overall effect from a story-telling point of view is that of a masterpiece. It presents a dilemma for the reviewer as, when viewing any work of genius, it is difficult to know where to begin.

So let us begin with the person holding the brush, Antoni Cimolino, who decided to set his Merchant of Venice in 1936 Italy, within reachable memory for many parents and grandparents. It is just before Italy introduced Race Laws restricting Jews (and other races) who had, up until then, been especially integrated into Italian society, even leaders of the country. This is also right before the outbreak of World War II, when millions of Jews (and other races) were, at one extreme expelled from their homes and countries, and at the other extreme, rounded up by the millions and placed in concentration camps where most faced certain death. As such, the Holocaust casts a pall over this production in a very obvious and deliberate way, and Mr. Cimolino refuses to gloss over the anti-Semitism of that unstable era, using subtext and his actors' incredible talents to convey so much of what goes unsaid.

Mr. Cimolino also consulted with Dr. Darren Marks, the same man who helped the company of Fiddler on the Roof achieve the authenticity of a Russian shtetl, to similarly provide the company of Merchant with historical context. Dr. Marks notes that "What distinguishes the Italian story from what happened in other Nazi-controlled areas is the rapidity of ascent of intolerance, as few European Jewish populations had been so integrated into their national culture." Mr. Cimolino uses this, and his own belief that people are "taught to hate and fear", to examine a group of complex characters who all betray prejudices in one way or another.

For instance. The production opens in a crowded palazzo, people sipping espresso, three children playing soccer and Tubal, a Hassidic Jew, begins to play with them (they are Italians, after all). He is confronted by a group of "Black Shirts" - Fascists - who had been handing out pamphlets (note that Bassanio scoffs at the one he is pressed to take), but Tubal winks at the children and they merrily wave him goodbye.

Later, one of those children is wearing a Fascist uniform.

Jonathan Goad as Gratiano, Anand Rajaram as Salerio, Tyrone Savage as Lorenzo
and Steven Sutcliffe as Solanio. Photo by David Hou.
Onto the stage springs Jonathan Goad as Gratiano, clowning around, trying to get the melancholy Antonio (Tom McCamus) to laugh. All jokes and smiles, he later reads a newspaper emblazoned with news of Mussolini, and soon thereafter makes a vulgar reference to Jessica (Sarah Farb). He progresses to minor vandalism even after Lorenzo (Tyrone Savage) staunchly defends Jessica to him, and further along in the play, Gratiano is the most malicious of Shylock's taunters in the courtroom. As an actor Mr. Goad can turn on a dime from playing charming to vicious, so he is a perfect choice to play Gratiano in this production, used here to illustrate that "rapid ascension of intolerance" so prevalent in the era.
Scott Wentworth as Shylock.
Photo by David Hou.
In this production Shylock is still the villain but is driven to be not because he is mercenary or hates the Christians.  Belying the text that their house is a "hell" and he is a "devil", Shylock is, as envisioned by Mr. Cimolino and played by Scott Wentworth, anything but. He is clean-shaven, wears a kippah but with Italian business attire, and does not make observance to his home's mezzuzah (at first), so to this Shylock his Jewishness is secondary to his being an Italian businessman. Above all however, he is a doting - if overprotective - father, who sings tenderly to his daughter Jessica before embracing her as he goes to supper; a father who carries her portrait with him after she elopes with Lorenzo, referring to her as "his gold" he will never see again. Shylock's villainous behaviour in the courtroom scene is therefore given greater cause in this production, in that his hatred is born out of love for his daughter, but it cannot be excused, any more than the vitriolic hatred of him by the others.

This is best illustrated by Tubal, played by Robert King. As the only other Jew - the one who is obviously so - in the scene, one only needs to watch Tubal's reactions as his friend presses his case to see that Shylock's behaviour is sickening to more than the Christians and Fascists in the scene. He rolls his eyes at Shylock's first words ("Yeah, I've heard that before, he doesn't mean it though"), agrees with Portia's words about mercy, stares down Gratiano's first outburst, and finally confronts Shylock with a look of silent anger and disgust before leaving him to face his fate alone. That such a minor role can convey such importance in a production is completely satisfying for an audience member.
Centre: Michelle Giroux as Portia. Photo by David Hou.
Never has there been a more empathetic Portia than Michelle Giroux. Ms. Giroux gives Portia more humanity than any other character, from addressing Shylock by name instead of "Jew" (a judicious edit by Mr. Cimolino), to politely concealing her dread of her foppish Spanish suitor (Antoine Yared), and illustrating a disdain of the growing Fascist movement by mocking her Hitler-ish German suitor. Even her most blatantly racist line (regarding the Prince of Morocco's failed bid to win her hand "May all of his complexion choose me so") is changed from a light-hearted jest to a commentary about thoughtless discrimination, as her companion Nerissa (Sophia Walker) is herself black in this production. Ms. Walker's look of hurt and Ms. Giroux's face-palming touch of apology speak volumes in a second. Even though at her home in Belmont seems largely untouched by the Fascist movement, this Portia recognizes its threat - dressed as Balthazar the lawyer a Black Shirt offers his hand in thanks, and you can see her weigh her conscience against the possible outcome if "he" refuses. Most of all, Ms. Giroux and Mr. Wentworth create a connection in the courtroom scene between Portia and Shylock that affects both characters, preparing the arc that ends the entire play - that of Portia sadly giving Jessica her father's kippah, and Jessica exchanging a long look with Antonio, as the first air raid sirens begin to blare over Belmont.

Sophia Walker (background) as Nerissa, Michelle Giroux as Portia
and Scott Wentworth as Shylock. Photo by David Hou.
 It would be easy to go on for another thousand words about the nuances that are brought out in the storytelling and by every actor (Tom McCamus, Tyrone Savage, Sarah Farb, Tyrell Crews, Ron Pederson... and everyone else, here's to you all), the designs, the soundscapes and attention to property detail that all make this production of Merchant of Venice the most powerful Shakespeare I've seen at Stratford in a good long time. Mr. Cimolino dared to ask and to challenge the big questions, and it does him credit. This production will do exactly what good theatre should do - inspire discussion, reflection and examination of one's own self. It has been said, "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing."* 

Congratulations, company of Merchant of Venice, for not doing nothing. If any production of this season deserves to travel to Broadway, it is yours.

The Merchant of Venice continues in repertory at the Festival Theatre until October 18th.

*attributed to Edmund Burke


  1. Saw this August 13, and agree wholeheartedly. I've seen Merchant several times, and must say I have never been so moved by its production.

    Cimolino really has found a brilliant way to present this most troublesome of Shakespeare's comedies, and as far as I could tell has done it without altering a single line...

    Indeed, he's turned it on it's head, and made it all about race relations. The casual racism of the leads is exposed by the work of Nerissa (Portia's maid, who is black) and Michael Blake, the Prince of Morocco. It all had me second guessing my enjoyment of Antoine Yared's hilarious take on the Prince of Aragon role. Arrogant Spaniard... is that a cultural stereotype?

    Wentworth does indeed steal the show; his performance is nuanced and full-blooded.

    As far as modern Western sensibilities go, this play has been all about Shylock for decades, and this production makes all that worthwhile.


  2. Thank-you for your comments, Mr. McKinnon; I'm sure the cast and company would love to know how much you enjoyed it as well. ~RG


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