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The Merchant Of Venice
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gemsling

Following a previous post, "To direct or not to direct - that is the question...", I've decided to submit a proposal and see how it goes.

So far, there are two of us planning to submit proposals, but the floor is still open. If you know anyone interested in directing a low-budget stage production of The Merchant Of Venice for The Hartwell Players, now is their chance. Submissions are due before the next play selection committee booze-up meeting in a few weeks.

Okay, I think that's sufficient effort in seeking further competition. Feel free to read my draft submission and suggest changes/fixes for the final version, but be warned: it's long, hence the cut.

Director's Proposal for The Merchant Of Venice

Play Details

Title: The Merchant Of Venice

Playwright: William Shakespeare

Play length and interval: 2 - 2.5 hours including interval. Interval to be between acts III and IV, which makes the second part shorter than the first.

Play Interpretation and Setting

It is the late 1920s. The economic depression is taking its toll around the world, and various approaches for recovery are emerging. In parts of Europe, particularly Italy and Germany, fascism is coming to the fore.

A decade later, the Nazi occupation of Italy will place severe restrictions on Jews. For now, their rights remain intact, but anti-Jewish sentiment is evident. Despite the Vatican's denouncement of anti-Semitism, many Christians remain wary of Jewish people. A Rome-based association within the Church named "Amici Israel" (Friends of Israel), under the guise of improving Jewish-Christian relations, aims for the conversion of Jews to Christianity.

Religious differences and distrust affect many, and even well respected and good natured people have their prejudices. One such person is Antonio, a Venetian merchant, who has berated and spat upon Jewish usurers who loan money for interest. One man, Shylock, remembers this mistreatment and bears great resentment for Antonio.

Both these men have their flaws.

Antonio has his wealth, but little to fulfill him on an emotional level. It seems that only his love for his young friend Bassanio can break his melancholy. But is this love enough? Is he just vicariously living a life he missed through the youthful experiences of a friend?

Shylock is a just man in an unjust world. But can he remain just when the legacy of the discrimination he has suffered drives him to seek "justice" at all cost? His daughter has left him, stolen by a Christian youth, and now he stands to lose what little livelihood he has left.

Of course, there is more to Italian life than the disputes between Shylock and Antonio over usuance, faith and the forfeiture of a bond. Love will save the day. Or will it? In Belmont the wealthy heiress Portia is bound by her father's will. Fortunately for her, his clever casket test keeps unwanted suitors at bay and brings Bassanio into her arms. But their love is about to be tested. When Bassanio is forced to choose between Portia, his wife, and Antonio, his friend and creditor, how will he react? Is it possible to love more than one person?

These and other questions are explored in The Merchant Of Venice, a Shakespearean comedy with a lot to say about humanity.

Thanks to Katherine Payne and Trevor Nunn for coming up with the idea of a pre-WWII 1920s setting. This will be conveyed by way of costuming, music selection and programme design/wording.

Choosing a setting for The Merchant Of Venice

Given the way Christians treat Jews in the play, it makes sense to set it at a time when Jews were persecuted. This is particularly important in this age of tolerance, when anything that appears to be anti-semitic risks being deemed too hard or too offensive.

One choice of setting would be the Counter-Reformation, with Martin Luther's 1543 publication of On the Jews and Their Lies. Personally, I feel that the comparitively recent pre-Holocaust period is more relevant to a modern audience that learns about the Holocaust in schools. Additionally, custuming for the late 1920's should be a little cheaper and easier than full "period" costume.

Cast requirements and gender balance

17 M, 3 F. Of the 17 men, 5-8 could be "femalised". The husbands and Shylock really need to be male, and I'd much prefer to leave Antonio as a man too. Other parts, such as the Duke and servants are flexible.

There is some potential for doubling of parts. The decision on which parts to double will be based on availability and preferences of auditionees. I'd imagine Princes Morocco and Aragon would double nicely; we could even give the impression that the same suitor has come back to make another attempt.

If I can find people willing to take on non-speaking roles, I'd like to invite a few people to help form a crowd at the trial, plus attend the princes as part of their trains. These people will only be required from dress rehearsals onwards.

Set design and layout

Following the lead of Richard III and As You Like It, I'd like to continue the supper format and scatter the floor with chairs and small tables. Both the stage and the floor will be used as acting spaces. The general perception will be that Venice is on the floor and Belmont is on the stage, but in practice there will be exceptions.

Venice. Venetian scenes will be mostly performed on the floor between the audience and the stage. For the trial, this has the effect of including the audience in the court room, exposing them to the action and intensity of the scene.

Shylock's house is on the stage, hidden by the curtain; we see it from the outside only. He and Jessica use the SR stairs to come and go, entering the house through the curtain. A small balcony down SL is Jessica's view to the world. Here she confides in Launcelot, and here she looks down upon Lorenzo when he woos her from the floor.

Portia's house is on the stage behind the curtain. A table is adorned with three caskets. Jessica's balcony doubles as an entrance for Portia's suitors. Other furniture and props, as available, to suit the opulence and mystique of Belmont. Portia and Nerissa may sit and talk on the chaise longue. As music features in Belmont life (see section "Music"), I'd love to find a gramophone, though a record player would suffice. The "avenue to Portia's house" (final scene) is on the floor: characters approach from behind the audience, cross from floor-right to floor-left, then enter the house via the SL stairs.

Choreography

No dance choreography or fight direction is required. There is some potential violence (Shylock extracting a pound of flesh), but the potential is not realised, so there is no need for a fight director.

Music

I will source appropriate music for use before the show and during interval. There is no explicit requirement for music or song within the play, but I might introduce some background music in Belmont to increase the contrast between the comic casket-test scenes and the dramatic flesh-bond scenes back in Venice. There will also be recorded music in place of musicians during the final scene.

Lighting

No major lighting requirements. Initial thoughts on possible lighting choices are:

Some coloured lighting on the stage to highlight the opulence and mystery of Portia's house. A profile on Jessica's balcony, providing dim light for secretive and night-based scenes. Spot lighting on Antonio and/or Shylock during the trial scene. A faint light on the stage to act as the candle light seen by Portia and Nerissa when they return (final scene).

Script Editing

My main goal is to make The Merchant Of Venice accessible. It is reasonably accessible as it is, so structural changes won't be required, nor will be the addition of modern rhyming narratives that can suit some comedies. I will however, be cutting the script down to avoid lengthy, drawn-out performances, and the primary target will be verse that is not likely to be understood by a modern audience. Iambic pentameter adds little to a modern production, so individual words or phrases can be cut if it aids understanding. Some stage directions and notes will also be added during editing.

Props

I have not yet drawn up a complete list of props. Some things that spring to mind are:

  • A knife for Shylock, plus a means to hone it.
  • Cheque-books for those throwing their (or their wives') money around. (Chests of ducats not so common in the 1920s.)
  • A chair, drum, or milk crate for Antonio to sit during the trial.
  • A big old law book for Portia.
  • Rings for Bassanio, Gratiano and Jessica.
  • Gold, silver and lead caskets, with skull, fool's head and a framed photograph.

Approach to Directing

Exploration. Shakespeare created complex characters, and those in The Merchant Of Venice have a lot of depth. Different people have different interpretations. Rather than impose my interpretation, I first want to get actors to form their own opinions about the feelings, actions and history of their characters. I'll then correct or alter choices that don't make sense, or that don't gel with others.

To seed this exploration, there'll be a character sheet for each character (sounds a bit like the preparation for a murder mystery night), giving a little background on his/her actions and relationships with other characters. It will also contain questions for the actor to consider.

In addition, the script will be peppered with questions and notes for various characters, prompting actors to think about how their characters would feel, behave, or interrelate with others in particular scenes.

Example questions:

  • Jessica: What is it about life in Shylock's house that makes you want to leave?
  • Portia: Do you come to Venice knowing the full extent of the judgements you'll deal to Shylock, or do you get carried away once once you see his preference for adherence to the bond over mercy?
  • Shylock: You prepare your knife to cut into Antonio's chest. Would you have had the power to actually carry out the threat had you not been stopped?

Learning lines. The first read-through will be recorded and provided on CD to help actors learn lines. Once initial blocking is complete, there will be a staged approach to "scripts down": for each rehearsal, actors will be asked to nominate a section of dialogue that they will attempt without a script. This should encourage people to put scripts down earlier, without requiring sudden recollection of the whole play. Actors will have access to annotated scripts to help understand unfamiliar words and phrases, and will be encouraged to speak up if they're struggling. Lines that still don't work for an actor could be cut or reworked.

Source material. I had initially thought it unwise to see other productions before doing a show, lest they hinder the creation of something new. Then I realised that it's good to have material to draw upon and that by using multiple sources you can still come up with your own interpretation. Source material for me will include:

  • Annotated scripts from these series: The Pelican Shakespeare, The Oxford Shakespeare. Film versions:
  • Michael Radford's feature with Al Pacino as Shylock.
  • Trevor Nunn's production for the Royal National Theatre, set in the 1920s-30s.
  • While I'd love to see The Maori Merchant Of Venice, the first ever Maori language feature film, I'm not planning to spend $60 NZD to get it...
  • Study guide from Spark Notes.
  • Discussions from the SHAKESPER mailing list, an continuing online scholarly "conference".

Sharing. Once I've edited the script and added notes plus character sheets, I'll be making it all available freely (ie. public domain) to anyone interested. Most who stage Shakespeare edit the script themselves, but some may be interested to see a different perspective or have production notes to work with.


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