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.