Parents and students are disturbed after Bishop Strachan School (BSS), an elite all-girls private high school in Toronto, staged a controversial adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, which they describe as anti-Semitic. The controversy led to the resignation of BSS’s head of school.
“Apparently, the blatant anti-Semitism in the adaptation was intended as a satire,” an anonymous group of more than a dozen families wrote to the school in a letter provided to The CJN.
“This intent may have been recognized by adults in the room, but we do not believe it was at all appropriate for highly impressionable teens.”
The adaptation included numerous references to the Holocaust, Nazis and anti-Semitism. Specifically, the letter-writers thought the show depicted Hitler “in a favourable light, as a humorous and likeable individual”; they felt the Holocaust analogies were “weak” and “disrespectful”; and they believed the anti-Semitic depiction of Jews perpetuated dated stereotypes. For example, according to the letter, someone from the production company instructed a student to construct a prosthetic nose that was “as large and offensive as possible.”
The letter alleges the satire went over some students’ heads, as exemplified by laughter and cheers during the performance’s anti-Semitic chants. Other students didn’t understand why the play was offensive to Jewish students, whom the writers say “were made to feel extremely uncomfortable and alienated.”
Kate Jamieson, the school’s director of marketing and communications, replied to that claim in an email to The CJN, saying: “The reactions have been as individual as the students themselves. We have reached out directly to those who had a negative experience, and we have encouraged all students to participate in a constructive and meaningful conversation.”
The adaptation in question was produced by Box Clever Theatre, a U.K.-based company that specializes in creating theatre geared specifically toward young people. In addition to approachable Shakespearean adaptations, their performances often tackle sensitive topics, such as bullying, racism and hate speech.
“Box Clever Theatre is sorry if any students at Bishop Strachan School were upset as a result of seeing our adaptation,” the company’s board wrote in a statement to The CJN.
“The production seeks to challenge hatred in all its manifestations and remind audiences of the dangers and consequences of unchallenged discrimination.”
The company’s artistic director, Michael Wicherek, wrote the adaptation in 1998 and, according to Box Clever’s website, debuted it at a theatre festival in Jerusalem “to great acclaim.”
Members of Box Clever flew to Toronto to develop the play with BSS students from Oct. 2 to 17. Upon staging the final product on Oct. 17, the school tweeted, “Thank you Box Clever for the inspiration, mentorship and brilliant adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. Bravo!”
The tweet has since been deleted.
The show was staged for, and created with, Grade 11 students, who are also studying the original text in their English class this year.
Judith Carlisle – the now former head of school at BSS, who came to the high school in August 2017, after moving from England – had staged Box Clever’s Merchant of Venice at her previous posting as the head of Oxford High School. In a public statement published the day of her resignation, Carlisle wrote there were “no complaints” during that performance.
“I would never deliberately offend students entrusted to my care or their parents,” she added. “That was not my intention. I deeply regret that that there was not a plan in place to ensure that teachers were fully prepared to engage the students on the play.… As head, the responsibility for that oversight ultimately rests with me.”
Since the controversy began, both the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center and the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs have reached out to parents and administrators at BSS to offer their services.
“We are committed to a diverse and welcoming learning environment,” Jamieson wrote, “and we have committed to bringing in qualified speakers from Jewish advocacy organizations to talk about anti-Semitism and diversity more broadly.”
Read Judith Carlisle’s full public statement:
Some students and parents have expressed deep concern about a performance that took place last week at the Bishop Strachan School, where I am Head. The performance was staged by Box Clever Theatre, a theatre company that is well respected in the U.K., including by the Arts Council of England. The play, which is based on Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice and draws attention to the enduring and insidious impacts of anti-Semitism in Shakespeare’s time and since then, had previously been performed by Box Clever at Oxford High School in the U.K., while I was Head of that school. It was well received, and I had no complaints regarding that performance. I understand that Box Clever has been invited to perform the play at the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom on November 14th.
I have spent my career in education. I have been head of school at three girls’ schools, including two in the U.K. and now Bishop Strachan School. I am committed to helping young women grow into reflective and informed members of society. As an educator, I believe that it has never been more important for us as to equip our daughters to deal with uncomfortable social issues and learn how to participate effectively in the often contentious debates that surround them. If our shared goal is to nurture a generation of strong, independent female leaders, we must stick to these core principles even in the face of occasional controversy.
I would never deliberately offend students entrusted to my care or their parents. That was not my intention. I deeply regret that that there was not a plan in place to ensure that teachers were fully prepared to engage the students on the play. As Head the responsibility for that oversight ultimately rests with me. I deeply regret any hurt or offence that has been caused by this, and any damage that it has done to members of the broader BSS community or to BSS, an institution that I deeply respect.
Read Box Clever Theatre Company’s full statement to The CJN:
Box Clever Theatre is sorry if any students at Bishop Strachan School were upset as a result of seeing our adaptation of William Shakespeare’s ‘The Merchant of Venice’. The production seeks to challenge hatred in all its manifestations and remind audiences of the dangers and consequences of unchallenged discrimination.
Since this adaptation was first produced in 1998, it has been performed in schools and theatres in the UK and Ireland and been performed at the Gerard Behar Theatre in Jerusalem as guests of the Thespis International Theatre Festival. None of these productions have prompted any complaints.
Box Clever Theatre was established in 1996 with a commitment to diversity, inclusion and social justice in the work it stages. The company was, is and will remain opposed to anti-Semitism and all other forms of discrimination.