REVIEW: The pound of flesh was never going to be yours: SUDS 'The Merchant of Venice'
Student directed Shakespeare has a bit of a history at the Cellar, indeed, this is the second this year. So what is it that has directors Peter Walsh and Clare Cavanagh returning to these well-tread boards?
In a word, Shylock. But let me get back to that...
Upon entering the Cellar Theatre we were greeted by the Ghost of Portia's father on a TV screen, excised from the script and placed at the beginning. This clues us into what we are in for, a streamlined and focused version of this script. How does a play with 20-ish roles go when liberally cut down to its most essential parts?
Although slightly confusing figuring out who everyone is and how they relate to one another for the first half of the play, not to mention a few actors switching roles, and gender, this is ultimately superfluous when the real meat of the play is revealed.
Belinda Anderson-Hunt expertly plays a cross-cast straight man Bassanio to the foolish and beautifully silly Gratiano (Alex Richmond) and his interactions with the vengeful Shylock are always a revelation to behold. Designer Sarah Graham's simplistic (and yet clearly laborious) set adds to this quick paced nature and the lighting design is fantastic. The choice to have Shylock soliloquise in a shocking red wash adds more to the intensity and drama of the scenario. Kudos to Lighting Operator Vanessa Handler for getting that perfect.
The rampant buffoonery and romance that is present throughout most of the play is a marvel to behold, played by a cast of more than competent actors who take their roles and have a ball with them. Particularly of note is Daniella Pilla who transforms the role of Nerissa as housemaid and elevates her to glorious hilarity. It was a delight every time she returned to the stage.
This is all of course, completely subverted when Max Baume's Shylock is denied his pathetic revenge. Our heroes become our villains all in the blink of an eye. The fury and sadness that Baume invokes in Shylock’s final soliloquy is gut-wrenching and taps into the fear of many minorities that not only will those in power not listen to you, but will act against you and strip you of what you have, systemically and societally ostracising you.
To get a bit personal, as a person who is gay and a descendant of slavery, I spent the rest of the show in a choked up and frustrated silence. I was in a state of almost disbelief when the rest of the play ran through. Were the audience around me really still laughing? Do they not see the blatant and inarguable abuse of privilege? Were they just ignoring it and trying to focus on the good times? I mean it's only student theatre right? Can't I just go home and not think about these things?
Perhaps the directors could have made this more obvious for the audience, but then again, why? Shouldn't we in an enlightened society know this? Nevertheless, The Merchant of Venice is a triumph, a slick production, and a major contender for one of the best shows put on at uni this year. Go see it.
SUD's production of The Merchant of Venice is currently playing at the Cellar Theatre until the 3rd of September. Tickets are still available via trybooking.