THE MERCHANT OF VENICE
02/09/2015 - 05/09/2015
“The sins of the father are to be laid upon the children”
Shakespeare’s classic tale of love, greed and vengeance comes careening into the modern world in Counterpoint’s production of The Merchant of Venice, directed by Alison Embleton. Experience timeless themes and characters in an accessible, modern setting, in the language of the original text.
Counterpoint continues its commitment to creating theatre by Dunedin youth for the wider Dunedin community, starring a cast of twelve University of Otago students and young professionals. Many of the cast recall fond experiences with the University of Otago Sheilah Winn Shakespeare competition in High School, with six cast members having previously won individual or team awards at regional and national levels.
Niamh Conlon, recently selected for the Shakespeare Globe Centre New Zealand Young Shakespeare Company (2014), is relishing applying the skills she developed through four years of participating in the Sheilah Winn Shakespeare Competition to a full Shakespearean play: “The nicest thing about doing a whole play is that you get to really explore character development throughout the whole piece. You go through a journey in the play as much as the character does, and you get to look at the bigger picture.”
Director Alison Embleton is excited about staging The Merchant of Venice in a modern context, and is keen to point out that although there are some modifications to the script, the core of the play will remain the same: “That’s the great thing about Shakespeare; the social observations and relationships he was writing about six hundred years ago are as relevant today as ever. The alterations we’ve made simply aim to reflect a modern world, filled with diverse relationships and contemporary social commentaries, which in essence remain the same throughout time.”
The Merchant of Venice
at St Paul’s Cathedral Crypt, Dunedin
September 2 – September 5 at 7:30pm
September 4 at 7.30pm – Audio described performance
September 3 and September 4 at 1pm – High School student matinee. Please email email@example.com to reserve your school group. Bookings essential.
General Admission: $20 | Concession: $15
Tickets can be purchased online or on the door (cash only)
Generously supported by Creative Communities New Zealand
Strong performances subverted by lighting
Review by Jennifer Aitken 03rd Sep 2015
I believe The Merchant of Venice is Alison Embleton’s first foray into directing. Choosing to tackle Shakespeare as a first-time director is an incredibly bold call and unfortunately Embleton’s inexperience does show. Making her task even harder Embleton has also chosen to stage The Merchant of Venice on a traverse stage.
Shakespeare is hard, and traverse is hard and although there are moments of the actors playing well to the room, there is a fair amount of over-acting and extraneous fluffing around the stage. The complete lack of direct address to the audience is striking.
Embleton has also made the decision to cast Bassanio as a woman but it does become a bit confusing. The use of pronouns is not consistent as sometimes Bassanio is ‘he’ and sometimes ‘she’; she is a ‘woman’ but also a ‘gentleman’, and this is all a little befuddling. Quite whether this is a comment on the supposed sexual fluidity of our generation or whether it is simply ill-considered and sloppy editing I am unsure, however I do suspect the latter.
Casting Bassanio as a female is fine; turning Shakespearean works into a contemporary comment on sexuality and same-sex relationships is a valiant mission. I do however question the use of The Merchant of Venice with which to do so. I feel there are potentially easier Shakespearean plays to do this with. Perhaps Bassanio could have been renamed Bassania (given the masculine and feminine structures within the Italian language)?
Sadly I also feel the decision to create a comment on same-sex relationships vastly overshadows the unfortunate and bombarding racism of The Merchant of Venice. In an age of Isis and terrorism I feel that focusing on the racial discontent and abuse littered throughout the narrative would serve Embleton better than trying to overlay questions about sexuality.
This being said, there are some very strong directorial decisions made throughout. I enjoy the way Shylock plays the discussion asserting payment of a ‘pound of flesh’, in default of repaying the loan, by gesturing insinuatingly towards Antonio’s crotch. There are light moments throughout that bring humour and humanity to the production.
Another highlight is the scene where Bassanio is choosing his box, as per the requirements of Portia’s father. Portia, with her back turned to Bassanio through sheer anxiety, is not privy to the nods and shakes of the head that Nerissa provides to ensure Bassanio makes the right choice.
Characterisation is the key to this production. Although at times lines are lost, the actors really bring the characters to life. Strongest amongst the troupe are Daniel Goodwin as Shylock, Joelle Peters as Bassanio, Shaun Swain as Lancelot and Megan Wilson as Jessica. Overall I think the choices the actors make with regard to their characters are strong; all seem to have a really good sense of their character and what they want. This is very important when performing Shakespeare because if the actors don’t understand why their characters say and do what they do there is no way the audience is going to. In this respect I am incredibly impressed with this production.
I enjoy the choice to play Shylock’s “hath not a Jew eyes?” monologue at the very end of the play, playing it softly and almost apologetically in order to perhaps justify his actions and recast him from villain to victim.
As much as Embleton’s efforts are admirable, there are a number of issues with this production; a few traps that perhaps a more experienced director would not have fallen into. For me the biggest distraction is the lighting. The Merchant of Venice is performed in the Crypt of St Paul’s Cathedral (a venue increasing in popularity) and I can’t figure out why she chose this as her venue.
I will get on to the lighting in a minute but first, let me paint you a picture. The Crypt has concrete walls, a concrete floor and a concrete ceiling. The ceiling is low and the space is both confining and stark. For some reason Embleton has not worked with this aesthetic; she actively rallies against it, filling the space with a large rostrum upon which she piles chairs, stools, desks and beds. The cacophony of stagehands traipsing on to the stage between scenes to remove and set these multiple items of furniture is simply unnecessary. It all feels a bit confused to me; the set and stage space work against the venue as a whole.
Sadly the combination of the low ceiling, the rostrum and the side-lighting do not work either. In raising my head to see the actors’ faces I unfortunately am aligned to stare directly into the LED lights opposite. This is a fundamental error in both direction and design: if I cannot see the actors, their faces, their expressions and even some of their gestures, there is no way I, or anyone, is going to be able to engage with the production.
I may have drawn a short straw and the lighting may not have been as big of an issue for everyone as it is for me, but as a director Embleton needs to think of these things and sit in different seats throughout the space as she is directing. Blinding your audience is never going to do you any favours. This may sound harsh but, for me, the majority of the actors were in silhouette throughout which made it incredibly hard for me to connect with the characters.
Sadly I feel that Embleton has made the already difficult task of directing Shakespeare nigh on impossible for herself through both her choice of venue and design aesthetic. I can see what she is trying to do and there are some lovely moments throughout. The piece is saved by the strength of the actors; their conviction and understanding is commendable across the board and there are some very well-played and genuine moments.
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