“The Merchant of Venice,” which opens Thursday, Jan. 24 (tonight) at the Key City Theatre, begins with comedy, ends with comedy, and presents full-on, often slapstick comedy throughout. And yet, through its history, theatregoers have left it with a troubled, uncomfortable feeling, to accompany the joy that the hilarious and successful pursuit of love leaves us with.
Shakespeare, in revolutionary fashion, has taken a rich, complex comedy of love — the beautiful and gracious Portia beset by suitors — and shot a tragic line through it like a rogue artery — the story of Shylock the Jew, who lends money to a man who represents the society that hates him. The two storylines are interconnected, and come together at the play’s climax, leading to a memorable encounter between the two main characters, Portia and Shylock.
“The Merchant of Venice” is the latest production of the local Shakespeare society Bard in Your Own Backyard. It is directed by Dean Nicholson, who also plays the role of Shylock, one of Shakespeare’s most memorable characters.
Although “Merchant” contains some of Shakespeare’s most romantic comic moments, there is an undercurrent, running throughout, of deep cynical fatalism.
Elizabethan England was a youthful demographic, with its own generation gap, as it came to be known. It was also unusually xenophobic and parochial, with a rigid class system. A person adrift from his or her “in-crowd,” was generally a person in trouble. To belong — whether at court, in a village, in a guild, or even with Christopher Marlowe’s mob of playwrights — was everything. And to not belong, that was the end of things.
Director Nicholson has brought this dramatic theme to the fore.
“This production focuses less on the religious concerns, and more on the ease with which people create divisions between people, whether based on age, status, wealth or gender,” Nicholson said.
Nicholson has also incorporated the use of modern techology and communications systems into the play.
“The use of modern techology in an Elizabethan setting underscores one such division between the technologically savvy young and the older generation who risk becoming out of touch, and are only seen as a source of money.”
Modern techology in an Elizabethan setting, it can also be said, can be used to great comic effect.
The outsider is the underdog, a favourite figure to most, especially in literature. But Shakespeare knew the truth of the matter — that society prefers a winner, and seldom rewards underdogs. The young, the beautiful, the wealthy come out on top, the outsiders, the poor, the aliens do not.
You can see that Shakespeare, far from writing a 16th century anti-Semitic piece — or alternatively, a play showing the intolerance of a Christian mob — has created a thought-provoking, realistic comment on the behaviour of society, a spiderweb of interpersonal complications, which would be recognizable at any high school, but is the pattern upon which all society operates.
Thus Jessica (Danielle Nicholson), the Jew’s daughter who has deserted him, takes up with the handsome and popular Lorenzo (Graham McBean), rather than the poor servant Launcelot (Jeff Cooper), who also loves her. Bassanio (Jerrod Bondy) persuades Antonio (David Prinn), his older friend and admirer, to borrow money to help him pursue the beautiful Portia (Kimberly Davidson). This will cause immense trouble for Antonio, but any court of law will ultimately favour an upstanding member of the bourgeoisie over any alien, any minority group.
There are patterns within patterns, too: Antonio, for example, yearns to run with the young crowd, with his friend Bassanio, but in the end he too will be outside looking in.
The worst rejection, of course, is reserved for the one farthest from any in-crowds — Shylock, the Jew, the moneylender, the alien. His rage, justifiable as it may be, leads to his unwillingness to waver from his pursuit of his revenge, his pound of flesh. This, of course, is a perfect recipe for tragedy.
So Shylock dares disrupt our comedy, our pursuit of multiple marriages to close out our joyful consequence? He shall be punished.
“The Merchant of Venice,” directed by Dean Nicholson and produced by Susan Hanson, opens Thursday, Jan. 24, and runs Friday and Saturday, Jan. 24 to 26, and Thursday, Friday and Saturday, Jan. 31 and Feb. 1 and 2.
Editor’s note: The writer of this piece, Barry Coulter, plays a secondary role in the production, but would certainly go see it if he weren’t in it. Also in the cast are: Don Davidson, Josh Klassen, David Prinn, Jerrod Bondy, Bob Wakulich, Mark Casey, Drew McGowan, Graham McBean, Dean Nicholson, Alan McBean, William Nicholson, Kimberly Davidson, Michelle Heinz, Danielle Nicholson and Joel Vinge.