“But since I’m a bitch, beware my fangs”
Any production of The Merchant of Venice has to contend with the difficulties inherent in Shakespeare’s play with its virulent anti-Semitism and so adaptors sometimes take radical steps to try and make it more palatable for modern audiences or to at least locate it in a more acceptable dramatic framework. Carol Allen’s adaptation of the piece for McFarland Ray Productions singularly fails on both counts though, a brutally misconceived interpretation which is frequently baffling in its intent and bewildering in its execution.
In this version, Shylock becomes Sara Sherman, Antonio is a closeted practising Muslim, Portia hails from an Indian-born family and Antonio’s various followers are a melting pot of ethnicities and sexualities. So far so multicultural, but it just makes the intolerance shown towards Sara that much more inexplicable and combined with the fact she’s now a woman, the shadow of misogyny hangs horribly over the whole production (the text is liberally sprinkled with references to that ‘bitch’) – quite why this version of Venice is so schizophrenically unforgiving is unclear.
The basic structure of the play remains untouched so the unfolding of the story at least maintains that essential clarity but the tinkering means that unintentionally comic moments abound – not least when Balthazar, stood between a man in Muslim dress and a power-suited woman, demands straight-facedly of the courtroom “which is the merchant and which is the Jewess”, one fears a farce may be about to start. Allen may be aiming to explore Muslim/Jewish animosity but there’s so little nuance here, so little subtlety that one feels more harm than good is being done.
Matters are exacerbated by a complete lack of pace, any energy that might have been generated in scenes is leeched away by laborious scene changes to the tune of 60s-inspired lift music which are gobsmacking in their length and number. The boxes and screens of Marcio Andrey Santarosa’s design are endlessly moved around but to little real effect, much more would be gained by streamlining the whole thing and allowing the play to flow freely rather than stop-starting throughout.
Consequently, few of the actors really get the chance to shine. Claire Garrigan’s Sara is interestingly drawn but ultimately underwritten as we’re given little chance to really delve into her character (as opposed to a traditional Shylock); Richard Armah and Sofia Stephanou find real sweetness as the eloping lovers Lorenzo and Jessica but again, there’s not enough of them in the play. Instead we see Fahed Salman’s rather blank Antonio failing to generate any homoerotic tension with Charlie Frost’s nondescript Bassanio, who likewise has little emotional connection with Komal Amin’s well-spoken if a little clinical Portia. Disappointingly confused.