Grab a blanket and a thermos of hot tea or toddy and head for an open air production of Shakespeare’s most well-known court room drama. A mild September evening found me in the grounds of Raadhuis de Paauw in Wassenaar to see STET’s presentation of a simply staged, light-hearted rendition of Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice by the Illyria Theatre Company.
The simplicity of the outdoor setting was off-set by a variety of comic costume choices, including a selection of wigs in dubious condition and a general merriment of approach that encourages the sort of audience response that was no doubt typical of Shakespeare’s own time when theatre was first and foremost about entertainment. Add to this the multiple roles played by each thespian – Antonio, for example, was also strangely well-suited to the role of Portia’s maid, Nerissa and the comic character of Launcelot. While Shylock, ironically, takes the role of Lorenzo, the suitor of Jessica, Shylock’s own daughter.
Illyria returns to the Netherlands for their 17th year. Performing in Germany, France and as far afield as Canada and the US, this small company is under the artistic directorship of Oliver Gray who has been at the helm for 26 years. For those who are keen to know a little more about the context in which Merchant of Venice was originally written and performed, Oliver provides a fascinating introduction to Shakespeare’s England. Reminding us of the strong religious divisions not only between Jews and Gentiles, but also between Protestants and Catholics at this time. Indeed it seems likely that Shakespeare himself was a Catholic and the somewhat macabre notion of the pound of flesh, so central to this play, had its originals in the penalty that Jesuit monks could expect should they be caught practising their faith in Henry VIII’s England.
As always, Shakespeare’s work raises perennial questions about human existence. In its humorous but nuanced exploration of the nature of faith and those that practise it, Merchant of Venice clearly touches on issues that are just as relevant today. As Europe struggles with the integration of migrants and refugees whose own faith is sometimes at odds with the country in which they find themselves, the play’s exploration of the nature of revenge and forgiveness seems especially relevant. It provides audiences with a wonderfully flexible lens through which to view the past, present and future. What more can one ask of an evening’s entertainment?
Souwie Buis 7th September 2018