The Merchant of Venice

Lennox Theatre, May 9

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John Turnbull as Shylock. Photo: Marnya Rothe.

It is the most difficult role in Shakespeare’s most difficult play, and John Turnbull is magnificent. The Merchant of Venice is a challenge and an oddity on many levels, beginning with its title: why would he have named it for the vile Antonio, rather than for the larger-than-life Shylock or the heroine Portia? Then there is the hard fact that whether or not one sees the play has being inherently anti-Semitic it has helped feed anti-Semitism for 400 years. Thirdly it is a comedy, yet it dares to visit the darkest recesses of humanity’s capacity to hate.

Finally there is the issue of Shylock himself, not as a Jew but as a character. He is first in the line of Shakespeare’s greatest creations: the ones whose pulsing blood and fiery intellects burst upon the audience in word and deed, in torrents of prose and poetry: Falstaff, Hamlet, Lear, Cleopatra and the rest. Shylock the character towers over the other puny people in the play. Even Portia (deftly played by the consistently good Lizzie Schebesta), although layered with wit, irony, intelligence, a moral compass, humour and appeal, is merely the most beguiling of the remaining cast of rogues, trolls and high-society phantasms. Shylock is greater than the rest put together. He is, as Harold Bloom so memorably put it, “the wrong Jew in the right play”.

But perhaps, when he played to the hilt, he becomes more the right Jew in the wrong play, and John Turnbull certainly plays him to the hilt. This is no simple task. The reason the character towers over what is fundamentally his play is his complexity. He may meet his intellectual equal in Portia, but she is not capable of feeling with the dynamism of Shylock’s emotions. It is so easy to play him wrongly. On the one hand he can be no more than a cartoonish prototype (which may well have been how he appeared to Elizabethan audiences), but on the other he cannot be made to milk the audience of too much sympathy because then his relentless pursuit of his pound flesh becomes implausible.

Turnbull’s triumph is to give us a Shylock whose villainy is credibly the result of a lifetime of physical and verbal abuse, and one whose soaring intellect fuels an entirely likeable sense of humour. But above all he gives us a Shylock in whom these qualities convincingly cohabit with a ruthlessness that descends to basest cruelty. Turnbull’s mannerisms and marvellously sonorous voice bring Shylock to life with almost shocking force, and he leaves one pondering why we see him so infrequently upon our stages. He is surely the equal of any actor of his generation – or of many another!

Richard Cottrell’s engaging production for the Sport For Jove company is set in a ‘tween-wars playground for the idle rich. The essentially unchanging set by Anna Gardiner (with Lucilla Smith) reinforces the sense of life as a frivolous game for the bored and stylish, amid which Shylock rears up like the monster that the others – including his own daughter – perceive him to be. The men are air-heads, dandies, clowns and bullies, and so are easily outwitted by the likes of Portia and her maid Nerissa (Erica Lovell).

Cottrell has assembled a 13-member cast that more than maintains Sport For Jove’s reputation for excellence not just in Shakespeare but in all its large-ensemble works. The language is handled with aplomb by all, including James Lugton as the hate-filled Antonio, Christopher Stalley as the swooning Bassianio and Lucy Heffernan as Jessica, the daughter who practices grand larceny upon Shylock and is punished with no more than marriage to Lorenzo (Jason Kos)!

To accommodate the thrust-stage nature of the production the Lennox Theatre was reconfigured with V-shaped seating which brought the audience commendably close to the action, but may have left some people with cricks in their necks.

The Merchant of Venice will never be truly great play, but Cottrell, Turnbull and Schebesta are very close to maximising its potential. Even those wary of this play should see Turnbull’s Shylock.

Lennox Theatre, Riverside Parramatta: Until May 16.

York Theatre, Seymour Centre: May 22-30.