DRAMA: Fayssal Bazzi, Mitchell Butel and Damien Strouthos on stage during a performance of Bell Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice.
DRAMA: Fayssal Bazzi, Mitchell Butel and Damien Strouthos on stage during a performance of Bell Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice. Prudence Upton

Classic play, faithful and also subversive

FEATURING three-time Helpmann Award winner Mitchell Butel (Janet King and Rake) as the defiant Shylock, and Jessica Tovey (Wolf Creek and Wonderland) as Portia, Bell Shakespeare is back in Lismore with their production of The Merchant of Venice, directed by Anne- Louise Sarks (Belvoir's Jasper Jones and Medea).

This masterfully envisioned production tackles the prejudices and preconceived notions of one of Shakespeare's most challenging plays.

After touring Melbourne, regional Victoria, Perth, Western Australia, Hobart, Newcastle and Port Macquarie, the company is here.

Mitchell Butel calls it his first nationwide tour with Bell Shakespeare.

"I've been to Lismore and Byron Bay visiting, but it will be my first time performing, and I've never been to NORPA but I hear Julian Louis runs a wonderful program among a great community of artists,” he said.

Mr Butel said the production was "a faithful version but, at the same time, a subversive version of the play”.

"Anne-Louise Sarks, the director, and Benedict Hardie, the dramaturg, were interested in the racial and religious politics of the piece but also in the gender politics of it too,” he said.

"She's highlighted certain parts of the original text to bring out those issues more strongly.

"The great tale of Shylock demanding his flesh from Antonio and Portia trying to find her love are still there, but the overtones that what means to modern audiences are fore-fronted.

"Audiences can say 'wow, Shakespeare was talking about the same things in the 1590s',”

Mr Butel said the main issue that resonates today is that people are still scared of difference.

"The Christians are very prejudicial towards Shylock because he is Jewish, and he has his own antipathies towards them and he doesn't like the way they do business.

"Portia refers to the King of Morocco's brown skin and she is casually racist, where Antonio and the Christians are very racist.

"Today we have some very interesting racial and religious challenges in this country too, about people of Islamic faith, or the whole marriage equality discussion; some people are terrified of of the difference, of awarding other people equal rights, it challenges them too.

"All that kind of stuff is very much part of our society, and this play allows people to understand that we are all human and we all share the same loves and the same needs, and ultimately we shouldn't be fighting, despite our personal differences.”



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