Bell Shakespeare's performance of The Merchant of Venice at The Joan

STAR TURN: Jessica Tovey's portrayal of Portia in The Merchant of Venice was everything the role required, and more.

STAR TURN: Jessica Tovey's portrayal of Portia in The Merchant of Venice was everything the role required, and more.

It’s always a wonderful experience when the Bell Shakespeare company brings its latest work to Penrith.

And their production of The Merchant of Venice - which played at the Q Theatre for two days last week - certainly continued that tradition of excellence.

Though regarded as one of the Bard’s comedies, The Merchant of Venice is a complex piece which demands much of its actors, and which the tight ensemble cast certainly delivered.

Although one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays it has also been a controversial piece over the centuries, mainly due to its portrayal of Shylock - the Jewish money-lender - as a hated figure, vilified for his faith and despised for his wealth.

Some have interpreted it as a direct reflection of the society in which Shakespeare lived, others as his way of exposing the hypocrisy of the Christian church, of which he was certainly not a fan.

Portia talks about “the quality of mercy” in that famous speech - and yet shows none for Shylock.

Moments of humour are weighed evenly against those of high drama. The “pound of flesh” scene had the audience holding their breath.

The cast of 10 actors delivered a seamless and polished production which carried its audience along in a wave of wonderful words, humour and drama, and left us satisfied with the ending.

Jessica Tovey brings strength and wit to her turn as Portia, surely one of Shakespeare’s best female characters.

Mitchell Butel is a stand-out in the difficult role of Shylock, never straying towards caricature, but helping us to see the humanity of a man whose fate is ultimately a tragic one. And that famous speech – “If you prick us, do we not bleed?” – is delivered with aplomb.

And Jo Turner as Antonio, Damien Strouthos as Bassanio, Catherine Davis as Nerissa and Felicity McKay as Jessica bring exactly the right amount of light and shade to their roles. 

As is often the case with the Bell company, there is no need for fancy costumes or complicated sets.

Modern clothing, a few black benches, and some nicely-timed falling leaves, provided all that was necessary to set the scene for the rich, multi-layered tale before us.