Hubert Burda Media

Shades of Grey

Veteran thespian REMESH PANICKER takes to the stage in the Singapore Repertory Theatre's compelling adaptation of The Merchant of Venice. Jolie Goh and Hillary Kang find out how the seasoned actor feels about portraying the play's villain-victim

Shades of Grey

“All that glisters is not gold,” famously said the Prince of Morocco in Shakespeare's 16th-century play The Merchant of Venice. Fast forward to modern-day, things are no different in the Singapore Repertory Theatre's (SRT) upcoming adaptation of the classic — greed and deceit run rife in the unfeeling, but glistening, financial metropolis where the story is now set to unfold.
Staged at Fort Canning Park this May as part of its annual Shakespeare in the Park season, The Merchant of Venice is an inspired, contemporary twist on the tale, replete with lavish sets and a stellar cast. Among them is Remesh Panicker, who returns to the stage after a nearly six-year hiatus to play Shylock.
We talk to the 40-year theatre veteran and winner of two Life! Theatre Awards about playing the miserly “villain” (or, so he would beg to differ).
Are there any differences/similarities between the portrayal of characters and events in the play, from what you see in Singapore today?
In short, yes. Our production is set in a Singapore-like place and in the present. The play explores the themes of bigotry, racism, social status, blinding hatred and the desire for justice vs the need for rule of law. There are similarities in broad strokes, even if the details vary.
Who are you cast alongside?
Wow. I am in awe of the talent. With the exception of my old friend Gerald Chew, I have not worked with any of them before. So it is such a privilege to share a stage with them. We have actors from the UK, India and Singapore, and this brings a lovely cosmopolitan texture to the production — which isn't unlike the Venice that Shakespeare set his play in [as well as] contemporary Singapore.
You play an Indian moneylender (instead of the original Jewish one in William Shakespeare's script); what will Shylock's religion be in SRT's adaptation?
Yes, Shylock is Indian in the play, but he is still of the Jewish faith. There is no getting away from the man's religion; he is referred to as the Jew in the play. Is it odd to have an Indian man be Jewish? Well, it is not unlike being an Ethiopian Jew. It is conceivable by a stretch of the imagination. So, our Shylock is a Jew of Indian extraction. One is his faith, the other his race — and in our world of the Merchant, these exist comfortably.
Please describe in your own words, what Shylock is like as a character.
Unbending. Respectful of the order and the letter of the law. A straight-shooter who believes in absolutes. Severe in countenance, except with his daughter Jessica. He also harbours a deep hatred for the wrongs he perceives he has been on the receiving end of. And that ultimately is his undoing.
How did you prepare yourself to play the hateful villain?
Truth be told, I didn't. I had planned to get cracking with the role in December 2013 well before we began rehearsals in March 2014, but work kept me busy. And I am glad. I am discovering facets of the character quite organically with each rehearsal. And as for being the hateful villain, is he really? I'm not so sure. Perhaps he is more villain-victim — a product of his experiences.
Has your impression of Shylock changed since you first read the play and now?
Most definitely. I first read this play when I was 16. And for the longest time that informed my impression of Shylock. A rigid man of personal principle. A man for whom things are black or white. A man consumed by hate. But after several weeks of rehearsal, I have discovered Shylock's world view may be one of black or white, but the man himself exists in many shades of grey. With our director Bruce Guthrie's gentle prodding...I have come to see much complexity in Shylock. He's become more human, and less of a stock theatrical villain.
Can you identify with him?
For the most part, no. I have, over the years, learned to let hate dissipate. Shylock has allowed the torment (real and perceived) of Venetian Gentiles fester within him and he wears this anger and hatred — sometimes on the surface, sometimes beneath — but it is always there. I do not believe in absolutes. And again, over the years I have come to see the multitude of grey in life; it isn't black and white. While I understand where Shylock is coming from — his world view so influenced by Old Testament morality and the mantle of the victim he wears on behalf of his "tribe" — it is now a character I can slip into comfortably.
Shakespeare in the Park – The Merchant of Venice will take place at Fort Canning Park from April 30-May 25, 2014.
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