Kathleen Bode as Portia
When the 2011 season was announced, I immediately said that I wanted to play Portia in The Merchant of Venice. She is a fascinating character, and I have wanted to play the role all my life. I was thrilled to have been cast as Portia, and could not wait to start rehearsals. I had read the play so many times, and studied this character so much, that I thought I knew exactly what I wanted to do with the her, and how to play her.
The best laid plans…
It became very clear to me at our first read through that I needed to throw all those ideas out the window that I’d had about what I thought this character was. Until we started really working closely with the text I had never really realized how terrible all of the characters in this play are to one another, and Portia is one of the worst. As our Executive Director and Text Coach said “there is not a single redeeming character in this play”. I wholeheartedly agree.
One of the major themes in this play is racism. Most strongly between the Jews and the Christians, and we spent a lot of time in rehearsal talking about this and about the impact it has on us as a contemporary society. What other words could you put in place of “Jew” in any of the lines that might make us think about our own prejudices against the people around us?
But religious racism is not the only form of racism in this play. The first scene with Portia she laments to her maid, Nerissa, how much she loathes all of the suitors that have come to woo her. While the scene is a great one to warm up audiences and get people laughing and engaged, she does it at the expense of others. The stereotypes that Shakespeare plays with still make us laugh today; the drunk German, the Englishman who is to proud to learn another language, the effeminate Frenchman, etc., and modern audiences love them. These stereotypes, however, are (at their very core) racism. Though they are a great way to bring the audience in and really connect with them as an actor, they are sometimes hard to make light. It is not until Portia’s lines about the Prince of Morocco that the audience starts to realize that she isn’t as sweet as she seems. My goal with this scene is to make as many people laugh at these suitors as possible, but also to see if any of them realize what that says about themselves.
In examining the character of Portia more closely, I found it harder and harder to like her. Which made it harder and harder to play her. How do you make someone so cruel be likeable? It seemed as though the more I got into the “head” of the character, the more loathsome I found her to be. I had to really focus on getting into the “heart” of this character in order to bring some sincerity and sympathy to her.
In attempting to bring this character to life on stage, I found it to be an emotionally draining experience. To try and find a balance between the two sides of Portia: ruthless and (ironically) unmerciful vs. vulnerable and kind, was no small feat, and I hope that I was able to do the character… justice.