Innovative cultural adaptations of Shakespeare produced in Australia, such as a version of The Merchant of Venice that replaces the word “Jew” with “Muslim”, are vital for a nation grappling with multicultural diversity, says theatre veteran John Bell.
“It’s necessary that we see (on stage) a society that is discriminating against the minorities,” the artistic director of the Bell Shakespeare company told the ABC’s Q&A program, hosted at the Sydney Opera House.A questioner had asked the panellists: “In a country wrestling with its conscience about asylum seekers and the stigmatisation of the Muslim community as terrorists, what do you think a play like Othello or The Merchant of Venice has to say to us?”
Mr Bell, who founded Australia’s pre-eminent Shakespearean theatre company in 1990, said The Merchant of Venice is a “very disturbing play” which was centred around discrimination against Shylock, the Jewish moneylender antagonist, by the “upper-crust, white, Venetian people”.
“I’d be interested to see a production of The Merchant of Venice where you substituted the word ‘Muslim’ for ‘Jew’ and see how that would resonate,” said Mr Bell. “If someone abuses you for long enough, and spits on you for long enough, you’re going to be like a suicide bomber.
“If you said to me 10 years ago, could you as an actor imagine yourself walking into a school with an automatic rifle and shooting 20 children, or putting on a vest and walking into a supermarket or cinema blowing up anybody, taking as many people as you could? I would have said it was impossible. No human being could do that. Now it’s a daily occurrence. So it’s no wonder Shylock does what he does, and I say good on him.”