Aleks Sierz on a Merchant of Venice set in Kerala
The Merchant of Venice
By William Shakespeare
Tara Arts touring until December 3.
Tel: 020 8333 4457
Although Shakespeare's portrayal of Shylock, the Jewish money-lender, is now seen by many as racist, The Merchant of Venice is still a gripping story about love, money and revenge.
To finance his trip to woo Portia, Bassanio, a youthful Venetian, borrows money from his merchant friend, Antonio, who in turn borrows from Shylock. When Antonio's ships are lost at sea, Shylock demands repayment but is foiled when Portia, disguised as a lawyer, successfully defends Antonio in court.
Director Jatinder Verma, whose Tara Arts production is touring Britain, says: "This is one of Shakespeare's most contemporary plays because it's clearly about an outsider, and because it examines, without pulling any punches, how society treats people of different origins." In fact, the Venetians openly despise Shylock. "But," he adds, "although Shakespeare sets up a clear divide between good and evil, good turns out not to be so good after all, and evil turns out to be not entirely evil."
Tara, the oldest Asian theatre company in Britain, specialises in fusing East and West in its productions.
"This time," says Verma, "we have relocated the play to Cochin, in the southern Indian state of Kerala. It was the Venice of its time, with historic communities of Christians and Jews."
The city's Jewish community, he points out, is one of the oldest in the world, dating back to the 2nd century bc, and the Christians came with St Thomas the Apostle in ad 52.
"When the Portuguese arrived in the 15th century," says Verma, "they didn't recognise these old Christians, and there was both a lot of forced conversions and also a fair amount of persecution of the Jewish minority."
Shakespeare, he adds, wrote his play not long after the execution of Elizabeth I's Jewish physician, Roderigo Lopez, and it reflects the tensions of its time.
Although Verma reluctantly agrees that Shakespeare was a racist, he adds that "he was a humane kind of racist. No one who could write Shylock's 'When you prick us, do we not bleed' speech could be utterly devoid of sympathy and understanding. The great thing about Shakespeare is that he was unafraid of staging big conundrums and using challenging material."
Verma hopes that his production will "help demystify and make relevant" the work of Shakespeare, especially to young people, and that its theatrical excitement will show them just how contemporary the dramatist remains.