O'Gorman's decision to cast Shylock as female stems from a wish to allow “the character's maternal quality to come through.”Alex Barnett

While there can hardly ever be any critical consensus as to Shakespeare’s best or worst play, the candidate for his most controversial dramatic work stands much plainer to the eye. Harold Bloom’s words stick out in particular: “one would have to be blind, deaf and dumb” not to recognise The Merchant of Venice as a “profoundly anti-Semitic work.”

While Bloom's words may seem harsh and unforgiving, to some, the play's potentially controversial portrayal of Jewishness, prolific stage history and enduring popularity seem to provoke further debate. How is one to justify both the appreciation and the staging of The Merchant of Venice in a time and place where Holocaust denial posters and anti-Semitic jokes cannot yet be called ideological artefacts, belonging only to the incomprehensible past? Is there such a thing as simultaneous loyalty to one’s national poet and moral conscience? Perhaps there is. The answer may be found in Myles O’Gorman’s radical remake of one of Shakespeare’s most divisive comedies.

“Like water, the trauma of religious oppression haunts around the stage and behind curtains, all the time and everywhere.”

A darkly powerful tale of forgiveness and prejudice, ancient enmity and newfound love, the action of the original play is transplanted from Renaissance Italy to the dystopian future. O’Gorman’s intention is to “strip the play of its legal jargon” and in purging the comedy of its temporal specificity, one witnesses the essentially timeless and universal “human drama” rise to the surface.

O’Gorman also indicates that a more literal representation of surfacing may be realised in the set design. The introduction of water serves not so much as an element of the anarchic lifestyle of the Venetian playboys as a harrowing reminder of the “oppressive Christian environment” in which all characters, whether Christian or Jew, are involuntarily immersed.

“The action of the original play is transplanted from Renaissance Italy to the dystopian future.”Alex Barnett

Thematically, the symbolism of the flooding is designed to recall as well as perpetuate the humiliation of baptism undergone by Shylock and Jessica. Like water, the trauma of religious oppression haunts around the stage and behind curtains, all the time and everywhere.

The production team’s avant-garde sensibility is reflected also in the casting process, namely through the decision to cast Shylock as female. “It is a process of re-creating Shylock,” claims O’Gorman, “by allowing the character’s maternal quality to come through.” In conjunction with the analogous re-imagination of Old Gobbo and Launcelot played by women, the play seeks to explore the dynamism inherent to mother-daughter interactions which subverts the monolithic discourse of possession and subjugation through which the Shylock-Jessica relationship is most often interpreted.

“A darkly powerful tale of forgiveness and prejudice, ancient enmity and newfound love, the action of the original play is transplanted from Renaissance Italy to the dystopian future.”

The accentuation of the mutual emotional dependence between the two women also sheds a new light on Shylock’s obsession with vengeance after her daughter’s departure, hence contributing to a more “sympathetic portrayal” of the embittered usurer. What has been caricatured as an act of hatred for centuries, O’Gorman implies, may in fact be a gesture of frustrated love.

Complementary to a heightened compassion to Shylock’s misfortune is an entertainingly cynical rendition of the romance plot. Portia’s husband selection in Belmont becomes a heavily digitalised video game while her deceased father becomes “some sort of game show host” – some of the play’s most melodramatic professions of love are rote-learned or read aloud from cue cards. The fickle lovemaking (in the Elizabethan sense of the word) between the young Venetians forms a captivating contrast with the more covert yet more convincing homoeroticism plot between Antonio and Bassanio, which may leave one more touched than one would normally expect.

Ultimately, this production of The Merchant of Venice is a rich and nuanced play that begs further scrutiny, beyond Bloom's watchful eye

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