The Merchant Of Venice often feels like two different plays in one. One half is coloured with the tragedy of the despised Jew and moneylender Shylock, and the other ablaze with its beautiful linguistic examinations of the law and loyalty, and what it means to keep a promise or to mete justice with mercy.
This makes it one of the most vexing of Shakespeare's 'problem plays', leading an ongoing debate between whether one ought to present it to a contemporary audience the way Shakespeare might have done to his 16th century audience - who must have taken great pleasure in seeing Shylock so reviled (then, Jews were made to live in ghettos) - or reimagine these uncomfortably disturbing elements of racism by muddying the waters of who is the hero and who is the devil.
This earnest production of Shakespeare In The Park is competent if rather vanilla; with less of the showier elements of previous years' editions, it is good to see Shakespeare's text in the spotlight, but it also means that more tedious scenes cannot be propped up by the shock and awe of special effects.
It is set in the present day, with some clever use of iPads and smartphones, and against a futuristic set reminiscent of the LED-studded and gaudy malls in Orchard Road. Bassanio (Perri Snowdon) seeks to marry the beautiful Portia (Julie Wee) and asks for a loan from his friend Antonio (Daniel Jenkins). With all his ships out as sea and no cash to lend him, Antonio turns to Shylock (Remesh Panicker), who demands a guarantee of what is arguably Shakespeare's most famous punishment - a pound of flesh.
By casting Panicker as Shylock, this production brings in the interesting added dimension of the Indian chettiars, so identified with their moneylending profession in this part of the world. It is a reminder that discrimination, both then and now, takes many forms; humanity tends to repeat its mistakes for centuries, and it sometimes feels like man is still making the same mistake today, whether in an outright hatred of foreigners, or those casual, unthinking remarks dropped in conversation.
Director Bruce Guthrie opts for the safer option of swaddling Shylock in pathos, adding a movement-based exposition and a couple of brief scenes to shade Shylock with more layers of tenderness, suggesting that he is a protective father also determined to guard his money - his sole source of security in a fickle, brutal world.
It is in this cruel world that Julie Wee's stern, elegant Portia shows him no sympathy except for a tiny hint of remorse, only right at the end, and she and the rest of the 'Christian' Venetians continue to be cast in a cheerful, romantic light as loose ends are tied up and riches restored.
One might argue that this is open to the audience to interpret: humanity has its shades of grey, and that good and evil are both hidden in every person. When Shylock is bankrupted as he loses everything he owns, including his figurative 'pound of flesh' with the loss of his daughter, his own flesh and blood, he leaves us with a bitterness in our mouths.
But as the production careens immediately to such joyous celebration, with audience members clearly rooting for the lovers, it gives us less room to ponder the horrific and questionable nature of Portia's actions, stripping Shylock of all he has and, in the final awful blow, to convert to Christianity.
The lead cast is comfortably eloquent, but it is in the smaller but no less crucial roles of Shylock's daughter Jessica (Krissy Jesudason), her new Christian husband Lorenzo (Johnson Chong) and the clown figure of Launcelot Gobbo (Sean Lai) that the acting falters. Jessica and Lorenzo's intercultural marriage is a source of friction, but they are played with such petulance that the question of their intriguing coupling is lost as they squabble.
Shakespeare's clowns and jesters are rarely actual fools; they do not suffer fools gladly and dispense key points of wisdom along the way, as we can see in King Lear's Fool and Twelfth Night's Feste. In this case, Guthrie adds a nice directorial touch with the introduction of Launcelot by way of a sock puppet tussle between his conscience and the devil on his shoulder, but this is let down by Lai's rather inhibited portrayal, who depends on shallow frivolity to limp through the rest of the show.
But the great heart of the show is Remesh Panicker, who does an excellent job with the challenge he is given, presenting Shylock as a calm, calculative presence who knows how to outwit a competitor, and then doggedly sticking to his principles when his world begins to crumble, until the walls begin to hem him in and that cool facade starts to crack.
It is this wonderful humanising of an otherwise unlovable character that gives the production its heft.
Follow Corrie Tan on Twitter @corrietan
SHAKESPEARE IN THE PARK - THE MERCHANT OF VENICE
Where: Fort Canning Park
When: Till May 25, 7.30pm daily, except Tuesday
Admission:$45 to $65 from Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to www.sistic.com.sg)