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Anne-Louise Sarks has acted in Shakespeare productions in the past but she has never directed one of his plays. So, when Peter Evans, Artistic Director of Bell Shakespeare, invited her to direct The Merchant of Venice, she was “really surprised”.
“Although I do direct classic plays, I often do renovations of them. I am interested in changing the perspective a little bit and refocussing on the women and it being quite free,” she explains.
Jessica Tovey is Portia in Bell Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice. Photos: supplied.
Sarks’ productions include an award-winning, radical adaptation of Medea, co-written with Kate Mulvany, which told the story from the perspective of Medea and Jason’s two young sons. She also directed Nora, based on Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, in which she and co-writer Kit Brookman looked at what happened after Nora slammed the door of her home behind her.
The Merchant of Venice is technically a comedy, but it contains some decidedly dark elements, particularly its ugly anti-Semitism. To briefly recap the plot, when young nobleman Bassanio borrows from Shylock, the Jewish moneylender, so that he can woo the beautiful heiress Portia, wealthy merchant Antonio agrees to be Bassanio’s guarantor. However, Antonio’s ships are subsequently reported lost at sea, and he cannot repay the loan so Shylock famously demands the agreed upon “pound of flesh”.
Having been offered Merchant, Sarks went home and read it. “What really hit me was that it was a play about power, and there were three marginalised groups in it – the women, Shylock and [his daughter] Jessica as the Jewish characters, and the question about Antonio and Bassanio and what that love is,” says Sarks.
“The deeper I got into the play, the more I was excited by something that actually felt incredibly relevant [with themes such] who has power in the world right now, and how religion and faith are being used as a weapon against marginalised groups. That felt like something I could sink my teeth into, and an audience would respond to.”
“Then, of course, the question becomes how can you make a play from the 16th century, that was speaking to a very different climate, speak to 2017? That’s a thrilling challenge, so the truth is I was hooked immediately,” she says.
Mitchell Butel is Shylock in Bell Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice.
Sarks has collaborated with Benedict Hardie as dramaturg on a new version of the script. “It’s been such a joyful process reshaping the text and figuring out what to celebrate inside the play and what to focus on,” she says.
“Most of the work has been to shorten and distil the play, but also to reduce the need for doubling. Our production will also feature some new sequences that illuminate the journey of our characters, like seeing Shylock after the verdict in Act IV (the court room). Also, we are creating a new moment between Jessica and Lorenzo [with whom she elopes and converts to Christianity] at the very end of the play. We’ve also chosen to extend or portray some moments that are referred to in the original script – for example seeing Shylock searching the streets for his daughter Jessica when she runs away.”
Another thing Sarks is keen to do is follow Jessica more closely. She is also interested in exploring the relationship between Antonio and Bassanio, which has often been regarded as having a gay subtext. “We will find out in the rehearsal room how strong that feels but it certainly seems to me that Antonio’s support of Bassanio feels deeper than just a fatherly or brotherly affection,” she says.
Asked where she and designer Michael Hankin have set the production – which features Mitchell Butel as Shylock and Jessica Tovey as Portia – Sarks says simply: “in the theatre”.
“In the end, the conclusion was that the best way to frame the play was for it to be a theatrical event and an act of story-telling, so it’s a very simple, elegant, pared-back space that is brought to life by this ensemble of actors,” she says.
“I haven’t landed it in any specific place though it will feel contemporary. The actors are in suits and have phones because I believe really strongly that Shakespeare wrote his play to speak to the time. I’m not at all interested in it being a museum piece. That world has travelled some distance since Shakespeare wrote it. Just in terms of the Holocaust it can’t be performed with its original context in mind, it needs to be brought into the now,” she says.
“We do that by owning that it’s a play and celebrating the story-telling, the actors and their extraordinary performances.”
The Merchant of Venice begins a 27-venue tour in Orange on July 7. It includes Melbourne, July 19 – 30, Canberra, October 13 – 21, and Sydney, October 24 – November 26.