Director: Don Selwyn
Country: New Zealand
For the second entry in my series of international Shakespeare adaptations, I’ve returned to my own home country – New Zealand. This time, the play making the stage-to-screen transition is The Merchant of Venice – the tale of a merchant Antonio, who enters into a dangerous bargain with the Jewish moneylender Shylock in order to help his friend Bassanio pursue the beautiful heiress Portia’s hand in marriage.
The Māori Merchant of Venice is an interesting contrast to the previous Shakespeare adaptation I wrote about for this blog, Madagascar’s Makibefo (Macbeth). That film had a stripped-back, minimalist style with sparse landscapes, monochrome visuals, and very few artificial touches like music or props. The Māori Merchant of Venice, on the other hand, relishes in its elaborately constructed sets and exquisitely detailed costumes. It boasts a full orchestral score, many different locations, and a somewhat indulgent nearly-three hour runtime.
The film takes place in a visually stunning setting which, stylistically, sits somewhere between Elizabethan Venice and Pre-European New Zealand. I mentioned in my Makibefo entry that Shakespeare often played fast and loose with geography, and many of his plays effectively take place in a quasi-familiar, pseudo-European fantasy landscape anyway. It’s not too difficult, therefore, to accept this unique world and become totally immersed in the story.
Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice is a work of great contradiction and paradox. It is ostensibly a comedy, but is best known for its moments of drama. And the famous Shylock character has been interpreted at different times as either a cruel, irredeemable monster, or a sympathetic figure of great tragedy. The play is perfectly suited, therefore, for an adaptation such as this. Everything about Selwyn’s film version is designed to defy simple categorisation – using two different storytelling traditions from across oceans and centuries to create a coherent and compelling film.
The Māori Merchant of Venice is the first feature film entirely in the Māori language, and boasts an all-Māori cast. Shakespeare’s characters have had their names altered to adhere to Māori pronunciations: Shylock becomes Hairoka, Bassanio is now Patanio, and Portia becomes Pohia, for example. Shakespeare’s play was translated into Māori in 1945 by Pei Te Hurunui Jones, and the film uses this version as the basis for its script. Māori culture has a strong tradition of oral storytelling, and each actor delivers their monologues and dialogue with great expressiveness and talent. Again, this stands in contrast to Makibefo, which all but eliminated the spoken word in favour of non-verbal storytelling.
The Māori Merchant of Venice has a lot to offer in terms of style and visual flair. The aforementioned costumes and sets are truly remarkable. The intensely physical performances of the actors are compelling even when the subtitles don’t quite live up to Shakespeare’s original prose. And there’s a gracefulness and quiet dignity to the camerawork throughout, for instance when it glides to follow Pohia and Nerita as they walk through a garden.
Like Makibefo, The Māori Merchant of Venice takes a story which has been adapted again and again, and breathes new life into it by transplanting the characters and settings into a different cultural context. It serves as a demonstration of how universal Shakespeare’s work really is, and offers a unique, albeit slightly long-winded, version of the story to a new audience.