The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 12.1581  Thursday, 22 June 2001

From:           Sean Lawrence <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>
Date:           Wednesday, 20 Jun 2001 10:38:52 -0700
Subject:        Follow-up to Review of Merchant at Stratford, Ontario

Hi, all.

You may recall that I posted a list to a review of a recent performance
of The Merchant at Stratford, Ontario, which the reviewer took to be
anti-Islamic.  The production has been changed, as described here:

 From Thursday's Globe and Mail

The Stratford Festival has changed its production of Shakespeare's The
Merchant of Venice after a Muslim-Canadian lobby group raised concerns
about racial stereotyping.

The changes were made this week to appease the Canadian division of the
Council on American-Islamic Relations, which formally protested against
the production's comic portrayal of the Prince of Morocco, a minor
character, as offensive to Muslims.

The character fell on his face while prostrating himself to Allah and
prostrated himself before a woman in the production. Muslims are
forbidden to prostrate themselves before anyone but Allah. The
production has been changed so the Prince does not prostrate himself.
The protest was lodged after the council's executive director, Riad
Saloojee, read Globe and Mail theatre critic Kate Taylor's review of the
May 23 opening- night performance and went to see the show for himself.
In her review, Ms. Taylor criticized the play's director, festival
artistic director Richard Monette, writing, "Apparently, (he) inhabits
some cultural bubble where anti-Semitic jokes have been banished but
anti-Islamic ones are still hilarious."

The Merchant of Venice has long been seen as one of Shakespeare's most
controversial works, in part because portions of the text are considered
blatantly anti-Semitic. The play contains negative comments about Jews
in reference to Shylock, a central character. Some schools will not put
the play on curriculums and some productions have drawn protests.  The
controversy over the Prince of Morocco arose not over the author's
dialogue, but by the way the production interpreted the character.  Ms.
Taylor noted that the actor playing the role of the Prince, Rami Posner,
appeared on stage with "with his face darkened and his body hidden in a
'Sheik of Araby' getup," sporting an oversized scimitar and "a ludicrous

In another scene, Mr. Posner "calls out to Allah, falls prostrate to the
ground and bumps his face in the process."

The Prince twice prostrates himself before Portia, for whom he is a

The play tries to portray all of Portia's suitors comically.  After
seeing the show, Mr. Saloojee met with Andrey Tarasiuk, director of new-
play development at Stratford and an associate of Mr. Monette.  As a
result, Mr. Tarasiuk confirmed this week, "we've made a couple of minor
blocking adjustments." Henceforth, the character will no longer
prostrate himself, but other elements of the characterization will
remain.  "It's not unusual shortly after a performance opens for minor
adjustments to be made for a variety of reasons," Mr. Tarasiuk said. He
noted that this year's production of Private Lives was also changed -
herbal cigarettes were substituted for real ones out of concern for
audiences.  Sheema Khan, chairperson of the Council on American-Islamic
Relations, said her board had received notification of the changes to
the production and "we are very happy with that."

Not all members of the theatrical community were pleased with the idea
of changing stage direction because of protests.

"It's dangerous territory," said Christopher Gaze, artistic director of
Vancouver's Bard on the Beach Festival. "You always need to be
sensitive, but irreverence can be a good thing. It's a shame when people
take offence at things in plays. It's a play, not real life."

Mr. Gaze, who once played Shylock in a Vancouver production of The
Merchant of Venice said trying to make a production politically correct
and please every community "is censorship."

"To me, it's gone absolutely crazy," he said.

The festival has also agreed to let the Islamic relations council
distribute a one-page information circular about Islam to audiences.
Both sides described their discussions as open and amicable.  "We
respect the importance of artistic expression and we did not ask them to
change the entire character," Ms. Khan said.

Mr. Tarasiuk said he considered the Merchant production "a strong,
courageous interpretation of the play and I think Richard (Monette) is
very proud of it. But we always welcome feedback from audience members
and the opportunity to dialogue."

Ms. Khan said the council, a grassroots advocacy organization that
monitors media stereotyping of Muslims, had previously protested against
a segment of a Royal Canadian Air Farce TV show that the CBC agreed not
to rebroadcast.

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