by Lynn on August 26, 2013

in The Passionate Playgoer

The following reviews were broadcast on Friday, August 23, 2013. CIUT FRIDAY MORNING, 89.5 FM: OTHELLO and THE MERCHANT OF VENICE both at Stratford playing until October.

 The fill in guest host was Philip Conlon.


It’s theatre review time with Lynn Slotkin, our passionate playgoer and theatre critic. Hi Lynn.


Hi Philip.


1)   What plays are you talking about today?


I’m talking about two plays with a lot of similarities:

Both take place in Venice. Both are about men who are outsiders even though they have achieved some stature in the city. Both have experienced racism. And both men lose everything at the end. I’m speaking about Othello and The Merchant of Venice.

 Othello is a celebrated soldier and master negotiator who marries the fair Desdemona. While her father respects him as a soldier, he objects to the marriage because Othello is black. Othello is also susceptible to the wicked innuendo of Iago, his ensign, who incites Othello’s jealousy, which leads to his downfall.

 In the case of The Merchant of Venice, Shylock, a Jew,  makes a loan to Antonio, a Christian. The forfeiture is a pound of Antonio’s flesh. Initially this is said as a joke because Antonio is a successful merchant, but it certainly has subtle undertones of the animosity Shylock feels towards Antonio. It does come to pass that Antonio can’t repay the loan and a court case results in which Shylock wants his payback, the pound of flesh.


2)   Race is important in both plays, but it’s really only The Merchant of Venice that riles people into wanting to ban the play. Why do you think that is?


In the case of Othello I think the racism is subtle. Othello’s downfall is his susceptibility to jealousy, almost to madness; and not necessarily because of his skin colour. A few well chosen words by Iago into the ear of Othello and the poor man loses all perspective, sense of self and sense of fair play. But in the case of The Merchant of Venice, anti-Semitism is front and centre.

At every turn Shylock is vilified because he is a Jew. Boys chase him and jeer at him from morning to night.Antonio spits on Shylock because he is a Jew and because of how he does business (charges interest). And in the end Shylock looses the means to do business and even loses his Jewishness when he is forced to become a Christian to save his soul.

 As I’ve said in a previous discussion, I don’t think the play is anti-Semitic. Rather I think it’s about anti-Semitism.

 Shylock has the most eloquent speeches to prove his points.  He says to Antonio’s friends that he, Shylock, is like them as a human being. If you prick him he will bleed like they will. If you tickle him he laughs as they would. And if you wrong him then the natural reaction is to seek revenge.   It’s brilliant, and eloquent and they can’t dispute him.

 Certainly the events of the last seventy years in Europe with the Holocaust has informed the play and made people sensitive to what it’s partially about.


3)   These are two challenging plays to produce. Take them in turn. How is Othello?


It’s a stunning production and very strongly acted. It’s directed with a very clear vision by Chris Abraham, who is proving to be one of the country’s finest young directors. The physicality is compelling. Julie Fox has designed a red set; with a raked square platform on which the action takes place.  It is simply rotated whenever a scene changes. 

If one is sitting close and the square is rotated so that the highest section is down front, then it might be difficult to see characters at the back of it, even though the focused action is down front. (a quibble). 

Michael Walton’s lighting and the music and sound of Thomas Ryder Payne are evocative and provocative.

 As Othello, Dion Johnstone has bearing, gravitas, and a combination of vulnerability and a formidable temper. He is both charmed and incredulous that the beautiful Desdemona has fallen in love with him.

 As played by Bethany Jillard, Desdemona is delicate yet brimming with a girlish confidence as this newly married woman.  She feels she can change Othello’s mind about firing  his second in command (Michael Cassio) but she doesn’t reckon on the Machiavellian manoeuvring of Iago who keeps on feeding into Othello’s jealousy. As Iago, Graham Abbey is darkly brooding, calculating and obviously dangerous.

 But I found Deborah Hay as Emilia to be the surprise.  Emilia is married to Iago.  It’s a rocky marriage. She is always listening and reacting subtly to what she is hearing and when she knows of Iago’s true evil her face reveals concern, horror, and being conflicted—what does she do. And in the end she explodes with the pent up rage of an emotionally battered wife.  It’s a blistering performance.

 I’d recommend this without reservation, but sit further back in the theatre.


4)   And The Merchant of Venice. Do they pull it off?


They do. Director Antoni Cimolino doesn’t shy away from the prickliness of the play. He sets it in the 1930s with the rise of the Fascists in Italy and the Nazis in Germany. Characters in black shirts wander through scenes. There is a sense that things are changing for the worse in Italy, so there is an underlying sense of foreboding. There is also a sense of money.

Douglas Paraschuk’s set of Shylock’s house is behind a tall ornate locked gate. Charlotte Dean’s costumes are elegant and beautifully cut and fitted.

Shylock and Antonio act with a barely veiled contempt for each other, until Shylock calls him out. And his request of a pound of flesh as the forfeiture is pretty clear in telling Antonio that he (Shylock) loathes him.

Portia is gracious but with a tone that makes her attitude clear to us, but not necessarily clear to the two bozo suitors who come to win her. Only with Bassanio does she show her unprotected emotions


5) How are the performances?


The performances for the most part are very strong. As Shylock, Scott Wentworth does herculean work because he had to step in about two weeks into rehearsal to take over for Brian Bedford, who was originally cast as Shylock, who had to quit the Festival for health reasons.

Wentworth is initially jokey as Shylock but when he is wronged he is formidable and quite moving. Shylock’s demand for the bond is misplaced anger—his daughter Jessica has run off with a Gentile taking his money and some sentimental jewellery he held dear.

Having him always carry her picture as he goes through the streets asking anyone if anyone has seen her is a masterful stroke by director Cimolino. It’s a production full of such thoughtful detail. But since Shylock can’t vent about Jessica, he takes the only other option he has, he demands justice and the bond of the courts.

As Portia, Michelle Giroux gives a performance of subtlety, nuance and sophistication. Initially she is a gracious debutant with lots of money and time on her hands. But when she is in disguise as the judge she is watchful, assuming and ultimately changed.  She goes into that court ready to do battle for her husband’s friend, assuming Shylock is totally wrong. But she is changed to realize how crushed Shylock is, how heartsick, how wronged. 

She assumes he will show mercy. He gives her a heartfelt reason why he won’t. Portia is rattled by this and realizes how much Shylock has lost.  It’s a beautiful, moving performance by Giroux 

As Antonio, Tom McCamus is dapper, mournful and proud.

 While Tyrell Crews is charming and boyish as Bassanio, he could do with more variation and depth. Bassanio is a fortune-hunter. I need to see that darkness in him. I don’t doubt he loves Portia. I just have to see more depth.

 In the crucial role of Jessica, Sara Farb is lightweight.  She does not have the acting chops or experience with Shakespeare to bring off this complex part. How angry is Jessica to take her father’s money and precious keepsakes? How contemptuous is she to marry out of the faith? Yet she seems to love her father. We need to see that conflict and variation and it’s absent in this performance.

 While this is a strong and worthy production I have some issues, questions, confusion. Why is Jessica in a blond wig, and a bad one at that, when she arrives at Portia’s house with her lover Lorenzo? Is this her idea of assimilating?

She’s the only one on stage who is blonde. The rest are dark haired. The decision to go blonde makes no sense.

Some of Cimolino’s staging of the courtroom scene is a bit muddy. Portia arrives stage right but way over on stage left Shylock is sharpening his knife upstage—that scene should be clearer and more focused. We have to see both at the same time for the whole to have the power it should.  

When Portia asks Shylock to “Tarry a little….” before he begins cutting into Antonio because she has found the loophole, it should be the emotional height of that scene. Yet Cimolino has Portia stand there without a reason to find the trick. She is not searching the bond. She is just standing there. Is she being coy? I don’t think so. Does she wait for dramatic effect? That seems a bit calculated for her.  That scene could have been ratcheted up emotionally.

I don’t know why some words were changed. Why was ‘glisters’ (“All that glisters is not gold”) changed to glistens? To help the audience? Trust us, please. We can understand ‘glisters’. And why change the word ‘smith’ to ‘black-smith’ when Portia is describing how one of the absent suitors’ mother might have had a relationship ‘with a smith.’ We can figure that out too.

That said, there are moments of gasping invention. Portia helping Shylock get to his feet in court when he is sick with humiliation when he has lost everything, is a case in point. The last scene when Portia gives something to Jessica is another—jaw-dropping and so moving.

All in all, Antoni Cimolino has created a thoughtful, detailed, moving production that will have you thinking, and questioning long after you have seen it. 


Thanks Lynn. That’s Lynn Slotkin, our theatre critic and passionate playgoer. You can read Lynn’s blog at

 Othello plays at the Stratford Festival until October 19.

 The Merchant of Venice plays at the Stratford Festival until October 18.


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