After last year's Romeo and Juliet
I was in rather a hurry to see Rupert Goold's next production for the RSC, but as aka_kelly
felt the same way I waited until we could find a weekend to suit us both. So now I finally make it to Stratford to see The Merchant of Venice
or, as people are calling it, The Merchant of Vegas
as that's where Goold, reuniting with R&J
designer Tom Scutt, has set his version of one of the most controversial of Shakespeare's plays. Bringing The Merchant of Venice
into a contemporary setting is notoriously difficult (I remember an interview for a theatre job soon after leaving University where I had to listen to an extended rant on why it's impossible to set it post-Holocaust.) As part of the Las Vegas trappings, there's a hint of bombastic televangelism somewhere in the background, particularly in Old Gobbo (Des McAleer.) This feeling of evangelical fervour lends some credibility to all the anti-semitism in the play. I would
say the fact that everyone is so happily open about it still clashes with the modern setting but I suppose John Galliano proves otherwise. I wouldn't hold my breath about this show following the last one to America, of course - the fact that the US setting is part of what makes the racism believable wouldn't go down too well. In any case the flashy casino sets feel like a decent analogy to the bustling Venice of the time and provide plenty of spectacle - the customary RSC dance sequence turns up right at the start, with the actors, who've been on stage since the audience entered, gradually building into a choreographed sequence.
It's very much a high-concept show, with mixed results although succeeding more often than not, and more often than such a high concept surely deserves to. The only major problem I had with the modern setting was turning the choice of boxes into a Deal Or No Deal
-style game show. Not in concept, but in the fact that it was being filmed and broadcast. Just from a plot hole point of view, the third suitor at most would be succesful, having seen on TV that the gold and silver boxes were duds.
The standout performance comes from Susannah Fielding, whose Portia, accompanied by Emily Plumtree's spectacularly backcombed Nerissa, is a giggling Southern reality star. It does jar a bit when it comes to her Act IV transformation into genius lawyer - thinking of it in terms of Legally Blonde
helps a bit but it's still a push. Worth it though, I thought, for such a different interpretation of a sometimes bland character. Richard Ridell's Basanio is likeable and Howard Charles' funny but often vicious Gratiano (neck-tattoos as a sign of someone being a bit rough! Another RSC meme still going strong!) gives a very strong performance. Jamie Beamish's Launcelot Gobbo is an Elvis impersonator serenading the characters and there's some scene-stealing smaller roles for Chris Jarman and Nikesh Patel. Patrick Stewart may be the star name but his Shylock doesn't overwhelm the play as he so often can - I think this was my favourite performance of Stewart's that I've seen so far. For both of us the weakest link was Scott Handy's Antonio, the titular Merchant. Physically his performance was fine but vocally it was rather nasal, too quiet and he didn't invest the character with much personality. I think he was partly stumbling over the American accent; he's the sole exception, as it's worth mentioning Jacquie Crago and Richard Ryder's voice and dialect work, I don't remember when I last saw a British cast this big with such uniformly convincing US accents.
We actually disagreed on the point of how far the production explored the homoerotic potential of Antonio and Bassanio's relationship; I didn't think it was particularly strongly presented, aka_kelly
read a whole underlying story into their exchanges.
With the difficult issue of the anti-semitism and general racism in the play, Goold's approach is to confront them head-on and no character escapes some pretty harsh judgement. Even the generally likeable Portia and Nerissa are appallingly patronising to Shylock's daughter Jessica, and openly racist to the Prince of Morocco. The three romantic couples who are married by the end have all shown a dark side and at the conclusion we see that they're far from walking off into the sunset. I've heard people go so far as to say that Goold has changed the play's ending, although I see it more as a radical interpretation of the ending, but one that fits into what's come before. What's perhaps most surprising is that this darkness balances out with quite a lot of humour throughout - it is, after all a comedy, if not one whose humour has lasted through the centuries as well as others'. The garish setting and party atmosphere help create a lot of new humour to replace sneery gags about pork that are no longer likely to bring the house down; a well-observed visual reference to a classic TV show by Caroline Martin's Jessica was a favourite moment of mine. The Merchant of Venice
is stuck with a duff final act which no amount of inventiveness can quite conceal and this may not be quite the revelatory production R&J
was but it doesn't fail to provide much worth discussing.The Merchant of Venice
by William Shakespeare is in repertory until the 26th of September at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford Upon Avon.