Shakespeare makes a classic comeback

MADC’s annual Shakespeare in the Gardens soon returns with a production of The Merchant of Venice – featuring period costumes. Director and performer STEPHEN OLIVER explains why Malta’s longest-standing theatre company is embracing tradition this year

MADC's The Merchant of Venice (Photo by Justin Mamo)
MADC's The Merchant of Venice (Photo by Justin Mamo)

Held every summer in San Anton Gardens, MADC’s open-air production of a Shakespeare play remains one of the favourite fixtures of Maltese theatre. And after several years of modern adaptations, this year’s production of The Merchant of Venice, directed by Stephen Oliver, is set to take on a more traditional interpretation.

A cross between a courtroom drama and a romantic comedy, The Merchant of Venice follows Antonio, played by Edward Caruana Galizia, who borrows money from Shylock, played by Oliver. He intends to use this money to help a friend court a noblewoman, but when the debt cannot be repaid, Shylock demands a pound of flesh as compensation. When the matter is brought to trial, a typically Shakespearean comedy unfolds, with everyone involved learning valuable lessons about humility and mercy in some very tense moments, while laugh-out-loud scenes offer disguises, wordplay and a satisfying ending.

The themes explored in Shakespeare’s plays are as relevant and relatable now as when they were written over 400 years ago, making them easy to adapt to a modern audience, as MADC has done for the past several years. One of these productions saw The Tempest in costumes that were a fusion of steampunk and Elizabethan style, which the audiences enjoyed. “We also used a pool for many of the scenes,” recalls director Stephen Oliver. “Our modern take on it worked well even with our more traditional audiences. There is absolutely no reason why many of the Bard’s works cannot be modernised – after all, so many of the themes of Shakespeare’s canon depict emotions and themes that are just as relevant today.”

Although these modern takes on Shakespeare have proven popular, Oliver feels that The Merchant of Venice justified making the significant shift to a more traditional aesthetic. “Many of Shakespeare’s plays easily adapt to more contemporary ideas with regards to costuming, but I find that this play sits beautifully in late 16th century Venice,” he explains. “So, we went for a particular look and shades to represent all classes and ethnicities dominant in Venice at that time. We also understand that, in the past, some audience members have stayed away because they prefer a more traditional feel, so this year we are delivering to them, as well as our regular patrons at San Anton Gardens. Sometimes audiences tire of the more common modern take.”

Although there is no doubt that audiences will enjoy the sumptuous period costumes, performing in the intense July heat wearing heavy clothes comes with its own challenges. “We all know how hot it gets outdoors in July,” Oliver admits. “Last year I lost two kilos playing Malvolio in Twelfth Night wearing a three-piece black frock coat suit. As a director, I have never asked an actor to do anything I would not do myself and so this year, because I am also playing Shylock, I will suffer as much as the other actors. Of course, we considered the heat during the design process, but the costumes of that period are sadly what they are, so plenty of fans and water backstage for all. But although there might be some discomfort, it’s always special for an actor to wear a costume that further enhances their portrayal of the characters.”

Hot temperatures aside, producing a play in the open-air is no mean feat. Apart from the lack of a stage, technical equipment, or facilities for the cast, the actors must also overcome acoustic challenges. “Unlike in a traditional indoor theatre where the voice is amplified, when outdoors, actors must work much harder with vocal projection and use of space,” says Oliver. “Still, the rewards far outweigh the challenges, especially for our audiences. For what could be more magical than experiencing the genius of Shakespeare, under the stars and surrounded by nature?”

MADC’s production of William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice performs at San Anton Gardens, Attard, from 19-22 and 24-28 July at 8.30pm. Suitable for audiences aged 10 and above. Tickets are available at