“All that glisters is not gold;
Often have you heard that told”
Actually, in this case, it is. All that glisters is gold, thanks to Bell Shakespeare, and Anne-Louise Sarks’ directorial vision for The Merchant of Venice. The ten-actor company that brought this Shakespearean gem to the west were top of their game on Saturday night. Jo Turner (Antonio), Damien Strouthos (Bassanio), Fayssal Bazzi (Gratiano), Shiv Palekar (Lorenzo/Morocco), Jessica Tovey (Portia), Catherine Davies (Nerissa), Mitchell Butel (Shylock), Jacob Warner (Launcelot), Felicity McKay (Jessica), and Eugene Gilfedder (Arragon/Tubal/Duke) were exceptional in their respective performances. But let me take a step back . . .
The Merchant of Venice was never one of Shakespeare’s plays that took my fancy. I knew the plot, I knew some of the famous quotations, but I wasn’t ever desperate to see it or read it. I was always more of a Hamlet, Macbeth, The Tempest, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Othello, Romeo and Juliet kind of Shakespeare lover. However, when the opportunity arose to see a Bell Shakespeare production, I really didn’t care which play I was going to see. For the uninitiated, Bell Shakespeare is Australia’s premier Shakespearean company, founded by Australian actor, John Bell. It’s not a schlocky company of halfwits, penny stinkers, or groundlings. The actors employed by Bell Shakespeare are serious about their craft.
Anne-Louise Sarks’ vision for this production brought together the traditional language of Shakespeare, and modern-day costuming, setting, and special effects. At no point during the performance did an actor leave the stage. Costume changes, exits and entrances were all done stage left and stage right, and were visible to the audience. Deconstructing the traditional concept of a performance in this way might have been off-putting for an audience, particularly given they were expecting a Shakespearean performance, but Saturday night’s crowd seemed to embrace the modern elements of the show. And whilst it is one of Shakespeare’s comedies, it was the portrayal of the characters that heightened the comedic measure of the dialogue.
The three stand out comedic performances to me where delivered by actors Catherine Davies, Jacob Warner, and Fayssal Bazzi. Warner’s facial expressions and body language were on point with every move, every gesture, every expression. Davies knocked her portrayal of Nerissa out of the theatre with a combination of witty delivery of her lines, and expressions and gestures. Bazzi was perfect as the highly outgoing, gregarious Italian lad, Gratiano.
Jessica Tovey, possibly better known for her portrayal of characters in shows the likes of Home and Away and Rescue Special Ops, was the big surprise for me. In the leading female role of Portia, Tovey was brilliant, and that’s not what I expected. When you know an actor is more well known for roles in soapies, I think it’s natural to expect that they’re performances in any other work might be below par. Not Tovey’s in this production. She really did give a brilliant performance as Portia. I wouldn’t hesitate to actively seek out further stage and theatre performances by Tovey after seeing her work in The Merchant of Venice.
The most exceptional performance of the night, the most phenomenal, was that given by Mitchell Butel in the role of Shylock. The first word that comes to mind in describing his performance is simply, wow. Don’t misunderstand me: the entire cast was stellar. There wasn’t a poor performance amongst them. But Butel . . . oh, hot damn, he was gooooooooood. Phenomenal. Fantastic. Exceptional. Inspired. Brilliant. And let’s face it, it certainly didn’t hurt that he’s a dashing fellow either. Not that any actor should be judged on looks alone, but it didn’t hurt that he’s quality eye candy.
To be honest, it didn’t hurt that the entire cast consisted of ridiculously good-looking people. Yeah, I just quoted Zoolander in a review of a Shakespearean play. I’m eclectic. I can do highbrow and lowbrow. Back to the point of the post . . .
Anne-Louise Sarks’ has delivered an inspired production. When you sit in a theatre for a two-and-a-half-hour performance, and you have no idea of time whilst you’re there because you’re so engrossed in the show, the director has done something special. The actors have done something special. Yes, time flew by without me noticing how long I was there. Sure, I was wearing a watch, but unlike many other performances, shows and concerts I’ve been to, I didn’t once look at my timepiece. Instead, I was lost in the world Shakespeare created for his characters, and the embodiment of them delivered by the actors.
If, by some stroke of good fortune, you get the opportunity to go to a Bell Shakespeare production, I’d highly recommend that you take it. I now list Bell Shakespeare’s production of The Merchant of Venice as a) one of my favourite Shakespearean plays, and b) one of the best stage performances I’ve seen. And the guy sitting next to me was left in tears at the end of the show. That’s how good it was.
All that glisters is definitely gold where this production is concerned.