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As Bell Shakespeare get ready to bring their uncompromising production of The Merchant of Venice to Perth’s State Theatre, Scoop catches up with actor Damien Strouthos to chat about the Bard, beautiful theatres and playing an annoyingly optimistic character.

Actor Damien Strouthos found it tough to get to grips with his latest character, the eternal optimist Bassiano of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. The Sydney-born actor is taking the title role in Bell Shakespeare’s new production of the classic play, set to open in Perth at the State Theatre on 9 August.

‘Bassanio was a difficult character for me to play as he’s the stereotypical character in love,’ Damien says. ‘He is eternally optimistic in that way and doesn’t see anything going wrong until it’s happened’.

Damien says he’d rather play characters who take the piss out of that kind of thing, so director Anne-Louise Sarks had her work cut out trying to get him to open up his heart. ‘It was a challenge for me because I’m quite a cynical human being,’ he says, ‘so I think Bassiano is a bit of a wet blanket.’

The Merchant of Venice is one of Shakespeare’s best-known plays. In it, the cheerful, lovestruck Bassanio uses his good friend Antonio’s credit line to score a loan from moneylender Shylock in order to woo the beautiful and rich heiress Portia; his greatest desire. It’s a dark tale, with Bassanio’s actions setting in motion a chain of events that result in human flesh becoming a bargaining tool and everything around him falling to pieces.

Originally from Sydney, Damien spent 3 years studying at WAAPA. He counts himself lucky to have performed at the Heath Ledger Theatre, a venue that left a lasting impression on him.

‘It is one of the most extraordinary theatres in Australia’, he says. ‘You walk in and there is all this wood and gold.  For an actor, when you walk out and see these beautiful gold seats, you feel really lucky that you get to perform in such a beautiful space.’

Shakespeare has a reputation for being, well, a bit old fashioned, but Damien urges people who might be unsure about the Bard to give the theatrical productions a chance. ‘Shakespeare was never meant to be read in a classroom,’ he says. ‘It’s sad in a lot of ways that that’s the first way kids are exposed to it.’

Damien says even he struggled a lot to understand it at first, but soon came to realise that there is nothing quite like the language Shakespeare gave his characters. ‘I really didn’t get it when I was reading off the page, but as soon as my drama teacher put us into a production of Henry V when we were 14, performing it was utterly different.’

As the team at Bell Shakespeare get ready to start the run later this week, Damien predicts the audience aren’t going to be comfortable when they leave after the show. ‘It’ll make you think,’ he says. ‘It’s funny but it’s also horribly racist in places. That’s to do with the fact that Shakespeare was dealing with issues of culture and religion, but wrapping it up in comedy. I think this production will have a big impact – emotionally and intellectually. Although there are a lot of laughs, there are also some very heartbreaking moments, which will make you question why you were laughing in the first place.’

The Merchant of Venice is at the State Theatre Centre of WA on August 9–12.

Find out more about The Merchant of Venice.

Image by Claire Hawley.

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