April 11, 2011

Bond (Taiwan BangZi Opera) @ The Hyatt Regency, Bellevue

You'll notice that Bellevue is off my normal reviewing route. While attending the annual meeting of the Shakespeare Association of America just outside Seattle this week, I took the opportunity to catch a special performance by the extremely prestigious Taiwan Banzi Opera Company of Bond, its retelling of The Merchant of Venice.

The scheduling of the performance directly after the conference Opening Reception - which featured an open bar - was perhaps not best conducive to my enjoyment of the performance. Nor, must I admit, were the tonalities of the music and singing to my taste. I found this an audibly difficult and tedious aural experience, which is no reflection on the excellent performers but rather on my own unfamiliarity with the musical form.

The opera, two hours in length, was split into four scenes: the establishment of Bassanio's quest and making of the bond; Bassanio's selection of Portia's casket; the trial; and the ring exchange. The stripping out of the subplots (no Lorenzo, Jessica or Launcelot) made this a linear and uncomplicated story, a series of causal events oscillating between Venice and Belmont.

The four main characters were all played by women, although Shylock and Antonio were still heavily made up as men. Chien-hua Liu's Bassanio was the most heavily feminised of the male characters, visually mirroring Ya-ling Hsiao's Portia. This Bassanio was childishly naive, simpering to his friend when asking for support and bewildered during the trial. Mei-li Chu's moustachioed Antonio, on the other hand, was a pragmatic and confident businessman who strode and blustered, an austere opponent for Shylock.

The diva of the opera, Hai-ling Wang, was the production's highlight as Shylock. The play's conflict between Jews and Christians was here recast as that between Saracen traders and the native Cathayans, and any religious aspects to the feud were occluded. Shylock was a comically villainous figure, deilberately vindictive and interested only in money. He twirled an abacus, clowning with it as he taunted Antonio, and whispered knowingly to the audience. Yet there was more going on too; a companion Saracen goaded Shylock on in the trial sequence, pushing him to greater acts of cruelty despite Shylock's own initial discomfort, and abandoning him at the point of the turn.

The "Hath not a Saracen?" speech was relocated to the trial scene, performed before the seated pairing of the Duke and Portia, with commentary from the two Sallies who watched from the sides. I appreciated the formality of the court and Portia's calm control of the law; her caveat was delivered in a spirit of absolute preparedness.

The love plot was less invested, with the love between Portia and Bassanio immediate and easy. When Bassanio looked unlikely to choose the correct casket (here visually realised as differently-hued birdcages) she hinted clearly towards it, and the ring trick was resolved in a spirit of good humour, a gentle joke rather than a learning experience. The banter between the coy Nerissa and the more comically aggressive Gratiano was a welcome relief here, providing a comic energy that broke up the lyrical love-talk.

As I've said, this wasn't to my taste and I found the shallow treatment a little unsatisfying. However, this seemed to me to achieve highly within the conventions of the form. It offered an intelligent reorganisation of the play that subordinated the complexities of plot to the musical expansion of character motifs, and what was lost in depth was made up for in formal style. It's certainly an approach I'd be interested to see again; though perhaps before rather than after the wine.

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Peter Kirwan is Teaching Associate in Shakespeare and Early Modern Drama at the University of Nottingham and a reviewer of Shakespearean theatre for several academic journals.

The Bardathon is his experimental review blog, covering productions of (or based on) all early modern plays. The aim is to combine immediate reactions with the detail and analysis of the academic review.

Theatre criticism always needs more voices. Please comment with your own views and contributions!

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