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Review: The Merchant of Venice at St. Kilda Botanical Gardens

Review by Naomi Cardwell

Melbourne Shakespeare Company’s The Merchant of Venice will be in residence for matinees and sunsets at St. Kilda’s rambling Rose Garden until 23rd December 2023. Minimally staged around a gazebo bedecked with climbing flowers, the thoughtful set design by Abbey Stanway allows for actors to appear on stage from any number of pathways, garden beds and hedges open to the audience’s view. The cast’s shenanigans off-stage and still in-character among the flowers are hilarious, and the loosely nineteen-twenties aesthetic is gorgeous, with Cortnee Jarvis’ dreamy pastel costume palette setting the tone for this relaxed, candid staging of Shakespeare’s most problematic comedy.

There’s no need to bring a seat or picnic blanket along: chairs are set out already on firm ground, but snacks and cheeky takeaways seem to be welcome. With no shelter overhead, I recommend choosing a spot in the back row so that you can use your umbrella for shade or shelter in the unpredictable Melbourne weather.

Shakespeare’s difficult language is treated with a light touch and streamlined into an easy ninety-minute running time, and Jarvis has sewn each character’s name unobtrusively onto their outfits to help us keep track. The cast are easy-going and informal, with particular kudos to Emma Austin’s antics and comic timing in various guises, which never fail to bring down the house. The occasional musical numbers arranged for parlour guitar, flute and clarinet by Natalie Calia are uproariously entertaining, with the crowd charmed into singing along to Minnie the Moocher in one memorable scene, and Hit The Road, Jack adapted in another to taunt the losers of a Bachelor-esque competition.

The plot follows love-struck Bassanio, rendered endearingly sheepish by Orion Carey-Clark, who borrows money to appear wealthy enough to woo the rich and headstrong heiress Portia (Eleni Vettos). Vettos and Amanda McKay as Portia’s servant Nerissa are a hilarious pair of hams, chewing the scenery as bachelorettes and decisively wearing the pants as lawyers in drag. When Bassanio’s friend and guarantor Antonio (haplessly and sweetly played by Chris Broadstock) falls on hard times, his debts are called in, and the gang must save him from his fate.

The fulcrum upon which the play’s mood wobbles, of course, is Shylock. The avaricious moneylender is gender-reversed in this staging, and Shelley Krape brings a deliciously tart, mother-knows-best brand of ruthlessness to the notorious role. Using Antonio’s default to avenge the anti-semitism that has seen her maligned in her city and her daughter estranged, Shylock demands a settlement of no less than one pound of Antonio’s own flesh.

Director Ben Margalith has put considerable thought into balancing the show’s family-friendly accessibility with the reality of its deeply anti-Semitic reputation. At the play’s opening, we’re warned the text is not, and should not be, comfortable. The courtroom scene - in which Krape as Shylock obstinately demands bloody vengeance on her hostage - is difficult indeed. It’s almost as uncomfortable, later, to see her forced to her knees by a mob who bay, they say, for mercy.

Margalith offers thoughtful remediation to the text, with the luminous Lucy May Knight as Jessica sitting alone to sing Eli, Eli: the lament which translates to ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me’. This moment, which carries on its shoulders the weight of Shylock’s mistreatment and forced conformity into Christendom, would do well to be given more time to ring out. For those who do want to spend longer with the topic, matinee productions will offer time for a little more processing, with guests welcomed to remain after the show for discussion and Q&A sessions.

In all, the production maintains a balance in favour of a lighthearted optimism suitable for a picturesque production in a rose garden, while leaving the opportunity wide open for anyone who wants to go deeper. It’s a good compromise, and characteristic of this group’s evident love, warmth, and respect for their work and for one another. The chemistry among the cast is genuine and infectious: we hear them warming up and laughing together as we enter the gardens, we see them encourage and playfully rib one another during the performance, and we hear their peals of laughter and eruptions of song during pack-up as we’re leaving. In all, this staging of The Merchant of Venice is a charming, witty and hilarious labour of love – with satisfying extra layers free for the picking.

Image Supplied


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