The Merchant of Venice
Summer Shakespeare Tauranga
Historic Village

Say what you like about Shakespeare, he is never one to shy away from controversial themes that are often as relevant today as they were 450 years ago.

The fact that it comes served up with a good dollop of rib-tickling humour is a mark of the greatness of the playwright.

Dylan Frewin's thoughtfully directed production for this year's Summer Shakespeare Tauranga plays to the strengths of both themes, neither sugar-coating the shocking realities of the plot nor missing a chance to get the audience shaking with laughter at the comedy that would otherwise make such truths unbearable.

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The story tells how Antonio, the merchant of the title (played by veteran treader of the boards David Guy), agrees to stand surety when his friend Bassanio (Pascal Tibbits) borrows the considerable sum of 3000 ducats from Jewish money-lender Shylock (Paul Mabey).

Tibbits cranks up the campness in a powerful performance that hints at the erotic relationship the script implies exists between the two friends.

There is no love lost between Antonio and Shylock, however, as we hear the embittered money-lender complain about how he is repeatedly spat at and spurned in Venice's streets.

In portraying Shylock, the playwright puts our emotions through the wringer. So too does Paul Mabey. For one who made his acting debut before Tauranga audiences relatively late in life, Mabey turns in an extraordinarily polished performance.

Acting talent clearly runs deep in the Mabey family, as Paul's daughter Gin takes on the pivotal role of Portia, the wealthy heiress who falls in love with Bassanio, then disguises herself as a brilliant young lawyer in order to untangle the plot and save Antonio from Shylock's knife blade.

Gin delivered the most moving and best-known speech in the play, "The quality of mercy is not strain'd, it droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven," with a gravitas and reverence that left the opening night audience hushed.

In a strong cast, special mention must go also to John McCarthy, who piles on the laughs in his role as the self-important Prince of Morocco, one of Portia's would-be suitors.

Gayle Spence, who romps through the part of Portia's maid Nerissa with delightful skittishness, also shows that she has a fine voice when she sings the play's lovely song

"Tell me where is fancy bred, Or in the heart or in the head."

I felt it a pity that director Frewin didn't make more of the song by giving Spence her own moment in the spotlight to perform, rather than treat her singing as a kind of background music to Bassanio's attention-grabbing downstage musings.

That said, The Merchant of Venice makes an enjoyable, well-rounded addition to Summer Shakespeare's accomplished repertoire, which has now thankfully become an unmissable annual feature in Tauranga's cultural calendar.

Credit goes to producers Dylan Frewin and Nadine Tibbits, the committed cast, and an army of helpers and supporters who do so much to add this dramatic delight to summer evenings on the atmospheric cobbled streets of the city's Historic Village in 17th Avenue.

The season runs until Sunday, January 27, and tickets are available from eventfinda.co.nz or at the gate on the night.

Seats and benches are provided though you may wish to take along a cushion for extra comfort and a wrap for warmth after the sun goes down.