Last night I went to the University of Adelaide Theatre Guild’s production of The Merchant of Venice. There were many surprises in this fresh and lively take on Shakespeare: a multi-coloured sixties setting and soundtrack, Portia in orange suede shoes and a purple mini-skirt, a few extra lines ( “Right foot on blue” – Jessica and Lancelot Gobbo were playing Twister. ) But the biggest surprise of all was that Shylock was a woman.
Gender swapping is not new to productions of Shakespeare’s plays ( although I’ve yet to see Romeo and Juliet change over – that would add a twist to the balcony scene. ) In the South Australian State Theatre Company’s Julius Caesar (199-), an actress played the part of Mark Anthony; there was a Malaysian female Shylock in 2006. And of course we all know from Shakespeare In Love that Gwyneth Paltrow made a passable “male actor playing female parts”, in accordance with the custom of the period.
Shylock as a woman threw up all kinds of issues. Suddenly we were dealing with sexism as well as racism and religious prejudice; the business-like money-lender who was so scorned by the Christians, Antonio and Bassanio, was also mocked because she was a woman in a man’s world. The parent who lost a daughter became a grieving mother and the many sexual references in the play took on a different complexion, too.
Or at least that’s what I and my female friend thought – the two men who accompanied us to the play were bewildered by our comments about sexism and the glass ceiling. Apparently happily gender-blind, they maintained that Shylock was only hated because she was a Jew.
One of the wonders of the theatre: two people sitting side-by-side can experience a different play.