The moon is shining over the Ghetto, and the cast have gathered, soaking in the awe of the moment. The beauty of Venice, the emotion of coming together to do this historical production to commemorate the 500 years of the creation of the Ghetto in Venice and the 400 year anniversary of Shakespeare’s death.
Actress and MA Shakespeare and Creativity postgraduate student Elena Pellone writes from Venice.
We are doing the Merchant of Venice in Venice. The first time it will ever have been performed in the Ghetto. The walls speak to us. We embrace each other in the madness and the beauty of trying to mount this production in three weeks. It is sold out.
We have come from all over the globe to do it. The director Karin Coonrod’s company is based in New York. Her Portia is Colin Powell’s daughter, adding profound resonance to the Mercy speech. Jessica is played by a beautiful young Jewess. Her sensitivity and youth give our Jessica a mystical beauty, as she sits in the window of what has always been referred to as Shylock’s house in the Ghetto. In our play she carries the hope of a new future, standing apart at the end of the play, watching how not to be.
We are from all over the Globe. Karin calls it a palcoscenico internationale - an international stage. The play will be mostly in English, but infused with different languages. Venetian, Italian, Hebrew, French, German, Ladino, Arabic…
We are a mongrel lot. Our Prince of Morocco lives in Milan, grew up in France, his mother was born in Morocco, his father in Tunisia…and so the stories go…My father is Neapolitan, my mother Greek-Egyptian, I was born in Australia, I live in Stratford-upon Avon and study at the Shakespeare Institute…and so our stories go…
We have been blown here by the wind from all corners, and the heart and the vision of the director is to make this grand gesture, this moment when we move forward, recognising that we are all outsiders, all foreigners, all aliens, but ultimately all the same. Hurt by the same weapons and healed by the same means.
As we rehearse in the Ghetto, the walls witness our shame as they ring with the words, “Dog Jew”, “Impenetrable Cur”…. The ending has been changed and Shylock has the last word. Well, the five Shylocks, one for every scene. In our production, Shylock has become everyman - the slivers of ourselves, the persecution of the outsider, the rage that fuels us towards injustice.
There is little love in this play full of money and commerce, where flesh is for sale, as well as the soul, and the future is a gamble - "We'll play with them the first boy for a thousand ducats." - But at the end the last monologue rings out as a warning - “You'll ask me, why I rather choose to have/A weight of carrion flesh than to receive/Three thousand ducats: I'll not answer that:/But, say, it is my humour: is it answer'd?”
The walls speak to us the bigger ideas of the play, larger than the characters and the moments, projected on them the word “Mercy” in English, Italian and Hebrew. Our task is to mine all of the humanity contained in the play that no character really shows. Love and Mercy.
The commitment to each other, the coming together as a company, the generosity is what lives beyond the story, beyond the play and the moment. All of us together, under the moon, on such a night, heeding and giving the warning. Killing happens without cause, without accountability. Hatred, prejudice, conditional love. We all are guilty of judgment and fear. We all are creators of, and victims of, the system. We are all asked to consider deeply the words of the Poet. The words of Poets. Love. Mercy. And the walls will literally speak to us.
For me it is the future of theatre – international, borderless theatre. And precisely what Shakespeare knew. We are in the Globe. We are the players on stage, together. And the power of theatre to hold a mirror up to us and see ourselves.
He challenges that. How we see ourselves. Karin challenges that. We are all accountable to the vision. It is complex. It is heartbreaking. And it is beautiful. For there is hope. It is not about winning or losing. It is about mercy. Misericordia. Rachamim.
“That the powerful play goes on, and you will contribute a verse.” Walt Whitman.