The Merchant of Venice: Is Shakespeare Still Relevant?

Teo Dawn

Held at School of The Arts’ Concert Hall, Shakespeare’s Globe presented The Merchant of Venice – one out of three plays they took with them to tour on this pitstop in Singapore last weekend. One other show we managed to catch would be Twelfth Night. Though Twelfth Night disappointed our writer, The Merchant of Venice turned out to be a great example of why Shakespearean plays are so classic – poetry, music and humour.

Directed by Brendon O’Hea, the play was straightforward in staging and retained the nature of the Globe Theatre where actors would enter the stage passing through the audience. Though that is made inconvenient because it is almost impossible to turn your head while seated in stiff chairs, I was glad that not all the action was done just on stage and that the fourth wall was constantly broken.

In particular, I appreciated the casting of Jacqueline Phillips as Portia, the great brains and beauty of Belmont. It is seldom you see an older lady cast into the main role, and as a capable and beautiful woman no less, in a play besides as a servant or advisor. She carried herself with grace and gave Portia such wit and presence. It definitely was refreshing to have a casting choice of such pleasant surprise.

Sarah Finigan as Shylock was everything I could ask for as well. This is the first staging of The Merchant of Venice where Shylock was not villainised but actually humanised – the needs, wants, intentions and emotions all played out so clearly and with such conviction. Having Shylock as such a wholesome character made the entire play just that much stronger in its messaging and the power of the “Hath not a jew eyes?” speech rendered the entire concert hall quiet. That moment in the play spoke to me and reminded me of how we still ask ourselves the same questions every day though centuries have past.

The performance was clear in speech and the humour all played out to impeccable timing, tied together with music and song. The cast had great chemistry and definitely the acting was done well.

However, I wonder just how relevant Shakespeare is in today’s day and age. Yes, the writing is poetic and reading between the lines bring about more than what meets the eye. But one has to admit that in terms of themes, Shakespeare does not perpetuate the kind of messages we would like to build a future towards. His texts are literary examples of sexism, racism and xenophobia even.

And there is only so much one’s actors can shift the text being said with intention and tone of voice.

One may argue that this portrayal is merely accurate to his time and it does not diminish the worth of his works. But can we really not find other theatrical works that speak the same volumes of the human condition without slinging mud at differences and gender? Would it ever come a time where we have to retire these texts and just have new writers from this era?

I do think we need to.

Photographs courtesy of Shakespeare’s Globe 

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