‘Shylock as Keyser Soze’ - Croi8’s radical Merchant of Venice

NEXT WEEK in the Town Hall studio, Galway’s Croi8 Productions present a radical new adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice.

The company bring to the Galway stage a sparkling romantic comedy freed from the shackles of anti-Semitism. The malign prejudices of yesteryear have been ditched to make way for humour, intrigue, and passion as Shakespeare originally intended.

Shylock, Bassanio, Antonio, and Portia are boldly reimagined in a production that is set in 16th century Venice and which uses contemporary English.

The production is also part of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Open Stages programme which encourages amateur theatre groups to stage new, ambitious, and challenging adaptations of Shakespeare’s works.

More than 260 companies have been chosen to participate in the project and Croi8 have the distinction of being the only company exclusively from the Republic of Ireland (one other Dublin-based company are doing a co-production with a group from Northern Ireland ). Croi8’s Alex Perry explains how the RSC link-up came about.

“With the Olympics taking place in London next year, the idea arose of having a cultural olympiad in parallel with that and the RSC decided to have this huge Shakespeare festival,” he says.

“As part of that, to reach out to school and amateur companies and invite them to stage the plays in new ways, they invited companies from the UK and Ireland to pitch ideas to them so we sent in our proposal for doing Merchant of Venice and they liked it and said ‘you’re in!’”

Croi8’s acceptance into Open Stages saw them invited to Belfast in July where, along with other participating companies, they received master-classes from RSC personnel in various aspects of production, including acting, directing and costume design, an experience which Perry describes as “fantastic”. So what of Merchant of Venice?

“We want to do the play as a romantic comedy because we feel that was Shakespeare’s intention,” Perry asserts. “There is a lot of comedy around couples in the play; there is the famous ‘test of the caskets’ [where Portia’s suitors must choose from gold, silver and lead caskets in a contest for her hand in marriage] which illustrates how we shouldn’t judge by appearances. Then there is the important friendship between Antonio, the merchant, and Bassanio. We felt key messages of the play weren’t really being delivered and we said ‘let’s try to handle them differently, let’s show prejudice being expressed but then overcome.’

Among the aspects Croi8 are certainly handling differently is the theme of anti-Semitism, which is often put at the centre of the play, and the character of Shylock.

“The original play seems to take prejudice against the Jews entirely for granted,” Perry notes. “That was very much an attitude of that time, we wanted to see if we could do more with that strand. We present Shylock as this enigmatic figure, sort of like Keyser Soze, there isn’t an immediately identifiable actor doing Shylock, he could one of five or six people, that’s one of the mysteries in our play; who is Shylock?”

Croi8 have reached out to the Jewish community to get feedback on their approach to the play and received positive responses. Professor Edna Nahshon of the Jewish Theological Seminary of New York found their script to be “hilarious” and Britain’s Chief Rabbi, Jonathon Sachs, wished them “the greatest success with this exciting venture”.

The Merchant of Venice will be performed at the Town Hall Theatre studio from Wednesday November 30 top Saturday December 3. Tickets are €10/5 and are available from the Town Hall on 091 - 569777 and www.tht.ie

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