Theatre director Anna Volska recalls with a laugh the last time she saw Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice performed on stage.

It was at the Civic Theatre in Newcastle, Volska says.

There is this moment when the male characters Bassanio and Antonio have a long kiss, and it was that kiss which almost emptied out the theatre.

The boys on stage were being very naughty and they would extend that kiss until they could hear seats flapping as people in the audience got up to leave. I always remember that moment.

So when Volska was preparing to stage the new Bell Shakespeare production of The Merchant of Venice, which opens at the Riverside Theatres in Parramatta on 26 May, she wondered what new interpretations she could make of the classic text.

In the new production, The Merchant of Venice has swapped its setting in 16th century Venice for modern day Sydney at the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras.

I came up with the idea because the play mentions masks several times, and we start with play with a parade of these great masks and a dance, Volska says.

It also seemed to me that this play takes place just before the men go off to get married, so this really is their last hurrah. As Mardi Gras actually means the last day of the carnival, it seemed like a good idea.

The Merchant of Venice will not, however, feature such iconic Sydney Mardi Gras images as drag queens, leather men or tiny sequin shorts.

Rather, the influence of Mardi Gras will be explored through the use of the grand masks and costumes, and the relationships between the characters.

The central figure of Shylock will also be seen as both the product and victim of a racist and materialistic society, which excludes anyone who is different.

The play stars Robert Alexander, Michelle Doake and Charlie Garber. John Hannan, who plays Antonio, says the play’s setting has liberated the cast.

The moment we were told it was set in Mardi Gras, people seemed to relax and the actors seemed to know what was expected, he says. In the opening number, there are boys with boys, girls with girls, and boys with girls. The story then goes from there.

The Merchant of Venice plays from 26 May -“ 3 June at the Riverside Theatres, Parramatta. Bookings on 8839 3399.

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