In The Merchant of Venice, Portia and Shylock face off in the courtroom. Here, we bring actors Mark Starratt (Shylock) and Faith Andrew (Portia) face to face on some of the important ideas and issues that this play addresses.
Who are you playing, and how do they fit into the story?
Faith: I am playing Portia; Portia is the rich heiress and the love interest of Antonio’s friend, Bassanio. Portia really drives the plot in the play, she’s the reason why Antonio borrows money from Shylock, she also ends up being the one that decides Shylock’s fate.
Mark: I'm playing the role of the antagonist Shylock, a Jewish moneylender in Venice who demands his bond, a pound of flesh, from his enemy Antonio after Antonio agrees to the bond but defaults on a loan. While Shylock appears to be greedy, jealous and vengeful, his behaviour is a product of the environment in which he lives. Anti-semitism in Venice runs high among the majority Christian population, a fact of life which Shylock has learned to deal with. Unfortunately, his tolerance reaches a breaking point when the Christians help his daughter run off with one of their own and takes a good deal of his wealth in the process including a prized possession, his wife's ring to him upon their marriage.
Why do you think it is important that we tell this story now, in 2018?
M: This play is timeless for all the wrong reasons. The Merchant of Venice deals with the most insidious and heartbreaking aspects of human behaviour. The transgressions shown in this play have occurred time after time throughout history. Perhaps if we tell this story enough times, our behaviour will improve.
F: Being a person of colour, it’s a big challenge to portray someone as prejudiced as Portia. Early on in the play she bids one of her suitors farewell, and as soon as he leaves she makes a terribly racist remark to her lady in waiting. It speaks volumes to me that even today, I have people I’ve met that I can fashion that side of Portia after. I think it’s important to tell this story now because there’s a lot of social change going on, but there’s still racism and prejudice everywhere you go despite how far we’ve come. I think this play is a really strong reminder of that fact.
What made you excited about being a part of this show?
M: While I have other acting credits, this is my first experience with a Shakespearean play. To be honest, I initially found Shakespeare's plays impalpable and tedious. However, I knew there had to be more to it then my superficial understanding so I was thrilled to be given the opportunity to delve into Shakespeare more deeply with this play. I'm very pleased to report that I'm discovering the real beauty of Shakespeare and gaining a much greater appreciation for the thoughtful considerations which the playwright has given his work.
F: The thought of playing any of the female characters in Merchant was thrilling to me. They all have such a mind of their own. Portia, especially, is an extremely strong female character, and I was beyond thrilled at the prospect of portraying any of these women.
This production of The Merchant of Venice is being presented as a tragedy, rather than the traditional comedy. How does the cutting of the final act affect how you are approaching this show? In general and for your specific character?
F: I think it’s a lot harder to have the play end on such a heavy scene. For myself, it’s difficult to pretend Portia is doing the right thing in that scene, especially since we can’t distract the audience with a lighter one after. What we do in the Court scene will impact how the audience remembers our characters.
M: The Merchant of Venice was originally staged as a Renaissance romantic comedy where love and virtue triumph over evil, a genre that had become highly popular in the two decades before Shakespeare wrote the play. Unfortunately, the humour was found in the bias against Jewish people which, by today's Canadian values, is totally unacceptable. By eliminating the 5th act, you remove the happy ending. While there may still be love, there is little virtue to be found. What you are left with are the darker aspects of Shylock and the Christians: their cruelty, their insensitivity, their malice.