It might be a Shakespearean masterpiece, but there's no denying The Merchant of Venice is a challenging play for 21st Century audiences. While its blatantly anti-Semitic characters aren't exactly condoned, they're no condemned either. It can make for uncomfortable viewing. Perhaps that's why it's one of the less fashionable Shakespearean dramas, performed much less frequently than classics like Romeo and Juliet.
Despite these challenges – or perhaps because of them – the Genesian Theatre Company has taken it on. Their fresh new take on The Merchant opened on Saturday night to a packed house.
Director Constantine Costi has set the play in the 50s – an era just modern enough to be accessible, but distanced enough to allow the audience to stomach the racist elements. It's a clever choice, and opens the door to some entertaining plot devices. My favourite was the 'game show' portrayal of Portia's suitors, as they vie for her betrothal.
Ingeniously simple set and lighting design manage to convey the superficial extravagance of Shakespeare's Venice. Against the backdrop of this glitzy city, the cast perform a convoluted tale of love, betrayal, wealth and revenge. A tale peppered with laugh-out-loud moments from beginning to end.
While a few of the smaller roles gave a slightly clunky performance, especially in the first act, this was easily forgiven in the context of the brilliant performance by the two main characters: Shylock and Antonio.
In his role as Shylock, Geoff Sirmai is both villain and hero. He manages to make us feel deeply sympathetic towards him, even as he insists on his right to a pound of Antonio's flesh. Similarly, Andrew Fraser beautifully captures the complexity of Antonio – a cocky, melancholy man, so generous that we can't help but love him, and so lacking in empathy that we can't help but loathe him.
I also can't resist mentioning Tiffany Stoecker for her portrayal of Portia. The entertaining scenes in which she banters with a seemingly endless line of hopeless suitors were by far my favourite of the night.
For those of you who haven't visited the Genesian Theatre before, it's a delightful little converted-church in the CBD. It seats 120, but brings the intimacy of a much smaller room, perhaps because the audience is split between the dress circle and the stalls. Based on the quality of this performance, I'll definitely be returning to see what else their in-house theatre company has to offer.
Whether you're completely familiar with this play, or you've never even heard of it before, I highly recommend you find time to see this performance of it. I'm so confident you'll like it, I'd stake a pound of my flesh on it.