A difficult play for difficult times
There are no easy answers. Not with Shakespeare’s problem play. “The Merchant of Venice” not only requires dramatic insight, it demands theatrical guts.
When the persecuted Jew Shylock demands his pound of flesh in payment for a debt he is owed by the Christian Antonio we are shocked. Fair enough. But shouldn’t we be equally outraged at the way Shylock is so cruelly treated by his Christian neighbours? Why should they believe he ought to renounce his faith in favour of theirs?
No wonder Shakespeare’s play has messages for today.
Doing the play now demands nothing less than a straight ahead approach that never weakens matters by softening the play’s disquieting anti-Semitism. At the same time Shylock must not be portrayed as simply a victim of bigotry, but as a man who is vengeful and unrepentant. What’s needed, of course, is balance. Alma Sarai and Chris Reid, actors tackling the complexities of Shakespeare’s troublesome play, are mindful of this as they work through final rehearsals to find the truth in the piece.
“This is my first Shakespearean role,” Reid says. A 48-year-old Mississauga kindergarten teacher, he feels playing this role he’s “at the base of Mount Everest looking up.”
“With Shylock it’s possible to have so many diverse opinions. In the end you have to get inside the man and simply forge ahead.
“The play is a comedy,” Reid says, “Though people find much darkness in it.”
“With Shylock, Shakespeare was writing a stock villain. Did he intend anti-Semitism to creep in? Perhaps. The point is we are watching the play through a 21st century lens. That makes a difference. Some productions have tried to soften the issues and make Shylock more sympathetic. When you do that the play becomes inauthentic. I want there to be a level of empathy for him and the way he feels persecuted in the world. I want the audience to feel his pain. That’s essential. But then there is an aspect of revenge here, too. Shylock can’t pull back from exacting the pound of flesh Antonio owes him. And that’s an issue.”
Alma Sarai, 25, who plays Portia, agrees, “The play might be offensive to people, particularly in context with the Second World War and Nazi persecution of the Jews.”
“Softening anything here, however, especially the language, could cause the play to detonate. There are things here I don’t agree with. Things about the play and about Portia, the character I play. And, yes, anti-Semitism is there. But the play is about more than that. I don’t think Shylock is monstrous, for instance. I think things just go too far. It’s circumstances,” Sarai says.
“For me Portia is a rescuer. She is a woman who has left her heritage and destiny. Things are a game to her, until they’re taken too far.”
Both actors says they find the play resonates with ideas that are disturbing and challenging.
“I like putting myself out of my comfort zone, taking risks,” Reid says. “I never wanted to be a professional actor. I like the feeling of being part of a community group.”
A kindergarten teacher at Ellengale Public School in Mississauga, Reid is married with three children. He loves teaching.
Spending days with 20 kids is about watching them discover new things every minute. “It’s so fulfilling,” he says.
Sarai, on the other hand, remains hopeful she may become a professional actress. She took dance lessons at age three, joined a choir a few years later and in 2006 went to Lou Zamprogna’s Theatre Aquarius Summer School where she played Val in “A Chorus Line” in 2006.
“For me it’s doing something for somebody else that ultimately does something for you. That gives me joy. I’m in love with the arts community in this area. I try not to close myself off to anything.”
Reid says, “‘The Merchant of Venice’ is about rebellion, revenge and money. My job is to make Shylock believable in all this. He’s been driven to a certain place and I need to reveal the inner monologue that makes us understand who he is and why he’s there.”
Tottering Biped’s production of Shakespeare’s play will be performed outdoors at The Rock gardens at the Royal Botanical Gardens.
“That brings in a whole new dimension,” Sarai says. “So much imagery in the play comes from nature. In this production we are in the middle of it. It’s amazing. You watch the sun go down. You feel time passing, naturally and figuratively. It makes you realize how small you are, even though on stage you somehow become bigger.”
The downside to outdoor theatre? “Well, there’s the heat,” Sarai says. “And the bugs. I guess those things are just part of the show though.”
Chris Reid as Shylock and Alma Sarai as Portia in “The Merchant of Venice.”