SUDS’ latest Shakespeare revival is not what one might usually expect of a student production of the Bard. Directors Peter Walsh and Clare Cavanagh have forsaken many of the more ostentatious trappings of modernised Shakespeare, opting instead for a simple, stripped-back production with few set pieces and no soundtrack.
A move that would have been disastrous in the hands of a less skilled cast and less experienced directors, instead emerges as a highly accomplished triumph.
The Merchant of Venice has all the ingredients of a Shakespeare comedy: a bright young man, Bassanio (Belinda Anderson-Hunt) resolves to win the heart and hand of the famed beauty Portia (Diana Reid). Poor in pocket, Bassanio enlists the help of his friend Antonio (Sean Maroney). Antonio borrows a sum from his enemy Shylock ‘The Jew’ (Max Baume), pledging a pound of his own flesh should he fail to pay the debt. Chaos and hilarity ensue.
The continuing relevance of Shakespeare is always hotly contended, and it is true that there are many moments of intense discomfort for the audience when the seething anti-Semitism of the period surfaces. In one particularly discomfiting scene Shylock’s daughter Jessica (Lucy Burke) pledges to be baptised that she might marry her Christian love. Yet these moments are poignantly contrasted with the words of Shylock himself, in a series of wonderfully delivered soliloquies. Enhanced by Vanessa Macpherson’s simple lighting, all else fades as Baume’s Shylock turns to us and insists upon his humanity in the face of his own blatant dehumanization. “Hath not a Jew eyes?” he demands. The most jarring of these moments arrives as he lays bare the hypocrisy of the Christians, who declare him evil for seeking of Antonio’s promised flesh yet themselves keep slaves under the same premise of ownership. It’s a sentiment of shocking modernity rarely associated with Shakespeare.
As the play grapples with these thought-provoking issues a steady stream of laughter comes from the hilarious and sexually charged antics of the supporting cast, particularly Alexander Richmond’s Gratanio and Daniella Pilla’s Nerissa. But the show-stealing performance came from Keshini de Mel, who in her roughly four scenes as Shylock’s servant Launcelot delivered a truly extraordinary comic performance rarely seen in amateur theatre.
The unobtrusive simplicity of the show will be challenging for viewers lacking in concentration. There are moments when the fast-paced dialogue is lost in the speed of delivery. But these are minor flaws in a show that encompasses the very best of student Shakespeare.