There is always apprehension when approaching a Shakespearean show such as this one. There is always the question of why?
Why present another version of The Merchant of Venice?
Does the Brisbane Arts Theatre present The Merchant of Venice to highlight the universal themes of cultural and religious prejudice? Perhaps, there is certainly evidence for this motivation when considering the carefully concocted scene between Portia (Samantha Rice) and the Prince of Morocco (Sven Ray) and the highly energised performance of Shylock (Ron Finney). These characters have an underbelly of disgust and self-righteousness that oozes with social prejudice. However in the entirety of the play these scenes get lost in the silliness of Commedia and singing scenes.
So maybe director Paul Sherman is merely attempting to entertain his audience? He has included songs that break the fourth wall of proscenium arch stage and encourage the audience to sing and clap along. There is also the heavily physicalised characterisation of Launcelot (Scott Drummond) who skips and hops around the stage. Commedia scenes are also included that intend to make the on- stage characters laugh along with the audience. This does not seem to be Sherman’s point either as he has skimped on the preparation and placement of these entertaining elements. While many of the songs are filled with energy, others are poorly prepared, and therefore, forget the context in which they are sung. A repeated scenario that served to detract from both the drama and the comedy of the play, was the foregrounding of a serious scene, punctuated by a ‘Three Stooges’ routine in the background.
So then it seems that Sherman’s aim is to present a multi-faceted piece going between the extremes of comedy and drama. To do this he requires precision and it is here he fails. Take design as a case and point. There are lovely moments of lighting; particularly the conclusion of Act 1 when the stage is engulfed by a wash of red that catches on the natural cloth background and makes the stage glow, but the lighting is too often dormant, disappearing for nearly the whole of the first act. The same applies to costuming. Portia is beautifully clothed but the general chorus is clothed haphazardly a disparity that the audience can not fathom. There are extremes of good elements that unfortunately act to highlight the lesser elements.
The Brisbane Arts Theatre version of this play unfortunately suffers from too many angles and not enough clarity. Theatre audiences can be very forgiving when productions have clearly desired results. When a show has many elements that are not fully attempted and these elements sometimes hit and sometimes miss, the audience ultimately leaves the theatre asking why did we need to see another version of The Merchant of Venice?