NEW TWIST: Giverny Lewis as Portia, Tim O’Donnell as Bassanio and Glen Waterhouse as Antonio in The Merchant of Venice.STOOGED Theatre has set Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice in the present day, with key characters becoming rivals for political office and a television game show being used to choose a husband for an heiress.
While Shakespeare purists might be scratching their heads, director Carl Young makes a persuasive case for the updating in the production that will be the central attraction of the May 8 to 10 Shakespeare in Gloucester Festival, with a subsequent season at Newcastle’s Civic Playhouse from June 4 to 7.
There is clearly bad blood between merchant fleet owner Antonio and Jewish moneylender Shylock in Shakespeare’s text.
But Antonio knows that Shylock has the wealth that will enable him to provide a generous loan. Antonio wants the money to give to his friend Bassanio, who is one of a number of suitors for the hand of wealthy heiress Portia.
Bassanio feels he has to match the costly gifts the others are giving Portia to have a chance of winning her hand, so Antonio, whose money is tied up in his ships, approaches Shylock for a loan.
Shylock, who is appalled by the anti-Semitic remarks he has heard Antonio make about him, agrees to provide the loan, jokingly saying that if Antonio can’t repay the money within three months he’ll have to surrender a pound of flesh from a part of his body that Shylock will choose. Antonio has to sign a legal agreement to this effect.
Carl Young said Shylock has become a banker in this production, and one who is standing for the same political post as Antonio.
And it’s clear that Antonio and others treat him as an outsider in Australian society.
Young likewise notes that Antonio is devious in the text. While he is borrowing money from Shylock, he is also helping a friend to steal Shylock’s daughter, Jessica, away.
‘‘He’s a typical politician,’’ he said.
‘‘He talks about Christian values, without following them himself.’’
Glen Waterhouse, who plays Antonio, takes up that point.
‘‘He shows one side to the public, but a different side to his friends. He’s very much a politician up front.’’
The TV game show also fits smoothly into the text, according to the director and actors.
Shakespeare has Portia forced by her late father’s will to marry the man who correctly chooses between three caskets – gold, silver and lead – the one that contains his consent for a betrothal.
In this staging, the candidates have to make their choice before television cameras, something, as the production’s Portia, Giverny Lewis, says, that’s not far removed from game shows The Farmer Wants a Wife and The Bachelorette.
Portia, in the play, is certainly fearful that some would-be suitors will make the right choice.
The Merchant of Venice, which has a smooth combination of comedy and drama, includes a broad range of characters.
Shylock (Timothy Blundell) is well aware how much bias there is against him because of his profession and religion, while his daughter, Jessica (Gabriella Stevens), is not above taking a lot of her father’s money when she elopes with Lorenzo (Luke Standen).
Bassanio (Tim O’Donnell) is so desperate to win Portia’s hand that he’ll do anything that might aid that.
Gratiano (Matt Graham), another friend of Bassanio, has his sights set on Portia’s glamorous assistant, Nerissa (Chloe Forster).
Young has made interesting changes to some of the characters.
Launcelot, Shylock’s resident fool (Theo Rule), has become a speechwriter – a change that goes well with the pointedly humorous remarks made by the man.
The cast also includes Scott Eveleigh, Joseph Issa and Joshua Yager, all of whom take part in one of theatre’s most engrossing courtroom scenes.
The Newcastle Civic Playhouse shows are nightly from Wednesday, June 4, to Saturday, June 7, at 8pm, with a 2pm Saturday matinee. Tickets: $25 to $35. Bookings: Civic Ticketek, 49291977.