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A WILDERNESS OF MONKEYS (article first published : 1999-06-16)

Pieter Scholtz’s latest production titled A Wilderness of Monkeys is a cleverly devised 70-minute piece taking audiences behind the scenes to analyse the character of Shakespeare’s Shylock who appears in The Merchant of Venice. The play opened at Kwasuka Theatre on June 15 for a brief run before it heads for the Fringe Festival of the 1999 Standard Bank National Arts Festival in Grahamstown.

When presenting work on the Fringe, theatre companies work for box office income alone and have to keep cast and props to a minimum. A Wilderness of Monkeys features a cast of three: Pieter Scholtz as the Shylock character supported by Tamar Meskin and Juan Burgers (who have replaced former advertised cast members Susan Monteregge and John van de Ruit).

The play begins with Pieter Scholtz as himself discussing interpretations of Shylock’s character by actors such as Laurence Olivier and, further back in time, performances by Edmund Kean and Henry Irving. A critic said of Irving’s performance: “I look upon Shylock as the only gentleman in the play and the most ill-used.“

While Shylock comes over as the strongest character in The Merchant of Venice, he only appears on five of the play’s 20 scenes. He is also not (as the cast reminds us) the `merchant’ of the title. This refers to Antonio, a shipping merchant who blithely lends his friend Bassanio three thousand ducats at no interest and asks Shylock to give him credit. (Bassanio wants the money to deck himself out smartly in order to woo Portia, a gentlewoman from a wealthy family).

To moneylender Shylock this form of interest-free loan is a threat to his only way of making a living. Antonio is also a Christian, which infuriates him further, suffering as he is from the barbs of anti-Semitism. To vent some of his spleen, he agrees to lend Antonio the money but if it is not repaid, he is entitled to a pound of flesh from Antonio’s body. Added to Shylock’s woes are the fact that his daughter has run off with a Christian – woe upon woe! – and taken a major portion of his money and valuables with her. The inference is that he bemoans the loss of his riches more than the loss of his daughter, particularly a cherished turquoise which he would not have traded “for a wilderness of monkeys”, hence the play’s title.

To Shylock’s delight, Antonio’s ships are lost at sea and he becomes bankrupt and cannot repay the loan. Shylock at last has the chance of wreaking revenge on his hated enemy and on Christians in general. From here on, those in the audience who are not familiar with Shakespeare’s play will be able to follow the action. Most of it contains the famous trial scene where Portia masquerades as a judge in order to save Antonio who was so selflessly prepared to give his life for Bassanio.

Pieter Scholtz, as always, puts in a solid and well-thought out performance. His Shylock is inflexible and self-righteous in his determination to get his pound of flesh (“to bait fish withal”) and his understanding and love of Shakespeare’s language through his many years of experience in performing or directing the Bard’s plays are evident. The moment of Shylock’s final defeat and abject humiliation was finely controlled.

Proving to be a strong foil for Pieter Scholtz is Tamar Meskin, whose reading of the Shakespearean language was fluid and intelligent. While her Portia was commanding, it tended to be a bit shrill and over-projected but her final moment as Jessica was entrancing.

Both Pieter Scholtz and Tamar Meskin could tone down their projection. Kwasuka’s acoustics are so fine that a well-placed whisper can produce a sense of thunder.

This is the first time I have seen Juan Burgers handle Shakespeare and while his performance was a little erratic, it was sincere and well-presented. He has the difficult task of performing at least five different characters and at one point takes over the role of Antonio which Tamar performs earlier in the play. Highly confusing, to say the least!

However, come Grahamstown, the production will undoubtedly have settled down. It certainly has the potential to attract good audiences. It is also provides interesting material for academic debate and should be a must for students of all things Shakespearean.


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