The Merchant of Venice

William Shakespeare
Tara Arts
Darlington Arts Centre

Poster image

In the city of Cochin, in the state of Kerala, South India, a troupe of Indian performers, converted to Christianity by the Portuguese, presents The Merchant of Venice, accompanied by Indian music played on a variety of traditional instruments (and a saxophone). The troupe consists of five actors, who play fourteen parts between them. The costumes are Indian and there are strong elements of the Kathakali theatrical tradition in the performance.

Cochin in the 16th century was an important centre of trade (as was Shakespeare's London and Shylock's Venice) with a very mixed population. In 1516 the Venetians established the first Jewish ghetto; in 1594 the physician to Queen Elizabeth I was tortured and executed when, accused of trying to poison her, he was discovered to be a converted Jew; during the Portuguese occupation of Kerala, Jews, Hindus, Muslims and non-Catholic Christians were persecuted and pressurised into converting to Catholicism.

The parallels are fascinating and Tara's production, directed by the company's artistic director Jatinder Verma, successfully brings out the universality of Shakespeare's play and its themes of greed, prejudice and difference, and pressure to conform, with the conversion to Christianity of Jessica (willingly) and Shylock (forcibly). Indeed, conversion of many kinds is central to this interpretation - the migrant's conversion, for example, to another way of life.

The five actors switch from character to character, indicating the change by an item of clothing (a scarf or coat usually) and, occasionally, a change of voice and of body language. Robert Mountford and Elena Pavli have the toughest task, each playing four characters, but it has to be said that the changes were not always obvious and one was occasionally left asking, "Who is (s)he playing now?" Pavli, for example, was expected to play both Nerissa and the Duke in the same scene, an almost impossible task.

This is not a comment on the quality of the acting but rather a reflection of the difficulties faced by an audience which is not as attuned to the symbolic significance of costume to the extent that, perhaps, audiences of other cultures are.

This difficulty aside, the production works well, with the Kathakali physicality and some clever use of a picture frame which serves many purposes distancing us from the piece (and our preconceptions about it) sufficiently for the ideas to come across strongly.

The crux of the play for modern audiences, of course, is its perceived anti-semitism and the portrayal of Shylock, played here very effectively by Antony Bunsee. But of course it isn't the play which is anti-semitic but the society in which it is set. The Christians are far from whiter than white: greed and selfishness suffuse the whole play and the Christians are as guilty as Shylock. None of the characters is free from its taint. All of which means that, in our society where prejudice and fundamentalism of many kinds are increasingly rampant and where "me" is the centre of the universe, the play has a great deal to say to us. Surprisingly, setting it in sixteenth century Kerala brings this across very forcibly.

The production tours throughout the UK until 3rd December. See our news story for details.

Reviewer: Peter Lathan