Review: The Merchant of Venice (Ale House Theatre Company)

Ale House stages Shakespeare’s play The Merchant of Venice in Toronto’s cozy Red Sandcastle Theatre


I’m always happy to have an excuse to go to Leslieville, and on Thursday night I headed down to see the opening night of Ale House’s production of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice in a cozy venue; the Red Sandcastle Theatre. This production is an intimate encounter with the impassioned characters that make up this classic drama between a merchant and his lender.

First, let’s do a quick recap, for those of us who haven’t, as Director Joshua Stodart observes, encountered The Merchant of Venice since the 9th grade.

The sympathetic merchant Antonio decides to cover a bond for his friend Bessanio, who wishes to become a suitor for the wealthy heiress, Portia of Belmont. Bessanio turns to Shylock, the town’s Jewish money-lender and names Antonio as his guarantor. The relationship between Antonio and Shylock is strained from the beginning, as Shylock has felt the consistent sting of Antonio’s anti-semitic feelings towards him. When Antonio is unable to make good on the contract, Shylock, already alienated from his community, becomes consumed with feelings of powerlessness and revenge.

The story is electrifying and features fully-realized characters that demonstrate how stories of intolerance and revenge are not black and white. Director and co-star Joshua Stodart has kept the setting true to its Elizabethan roots and I really appreciated the intimate staging of this production. A small stage and a quaint setting are enough as the play features such intense characters and confrontations that I probably would have been overwhelmed by a more elaborate setting.

The performers are very strong in this production. Shylock (Tal Shulman) is an engaging force and remains so throughout the production. Bessanio (Joshua Stodart) has a very natural way of delivering this text; he is endearing and gentle. I think that Matt Shaw, who plays Antonio, is a strong performer, but at times I felt like he was reciting lines rather than truly connecting with them. This is the main challenge that contemporary actors, even talented ones, face; how to connect to a way of speaking that is not natural for us.

You know when you visit another country and, after a couple weeks of immersion, you start acting and speaking like the locals? It’s like a barrier has broken down and you truly begin to understand what each other means. Well I think the same barrier falls between the audience and a performer who delivers Shakespearean text really successfully. You begin to forget they are speaking in such an unfamiliar way at all, and you leave the theatre speaking that way yourself!

The one performer who demonstrated this intuitive understanding in a exceptional way was Hilary McCormack whose portrayal of Portia is just riveting and truly layered. She is passionate, level headed, confident and as fully-realized as Shylock himself.

My hairs stood on the back of my neck as she delivered her famous speech about the ‘quality of mercy’.

Overall, it’s a very captivating production of The Merchant of Venice with a cast that just doesn’t quit. Check it out while you still can!


  • The Merchant of Venice plays at Red Sandcastle Theatre (922 Queen Street East)
  • August 28-31 at 7PM, and a matinee on August 31 at 2PM
  • Tickets are $20 in advance, $15 for students and seniors, call 416-845-9411 or PWYC at the door

Photo by Joseph Hammond