What: The Merchant of Venice
Where: Stratford-Upon_Avon, Royal Shakespeare Theatre
When: 19th May 2011
This could have been the most astonishing production of Shakespeare I’d ever seen – if it didn’t have echoes of so much else that is doing the rounds in the last few years. Consequently, the departures don’t seem so radical as they might once have done and the question is only whether this is a good way or, for some, an acceptable way to present Shakespeare. It is a production that will divide audiences a lot more than it seemed to do on the night I was watching – where the audience were very enthusiastic.
So what are those departures?
Well, as soon as you entered the theatre it became obvious that the majority of the actors had already taken the stage and were speaking like Brooklyn-natives but were evidently all visiting Las Vegas. Perhaps Atlantic City would have been a better bet as a setting or perhaps America is smaller than I thought. The play proper is preceded by a rousing version of “Viva Las Vegas” performed by an Elvis Presley impersonator who we will later learn is Launcelot Gobbo. The dance troupe approached this with as much enthusiasm as you would hope to hear in any West End production but you did wonder what American tourists who had come to see the greatest British writer’s work, performed in his home town, would be making of it.
The stage set was then streamlined to reveal Antonio sat at one of the gambling tables, as he spoke his opening lines, with Gratiano and Solanio attending to his words. Antonio, we will learn, is homosexual and Gratiano and Solanio are apparently extras from TVs “The Sopranos”. Bassanio is not only seeking Antonio’s aid but is the object of his desire.
This device of making Antonio’s interest in Bassanio more than platonic or paternal is by no means new but, at least, Rupert Goold, the director, has the nerve to stretch the idea out through the play to see how it would impact the later scenes.
The casket device by which Portia’s future husband is chosen becomes the casket game as it is transformed into a fully-fledged U.S. TV game show complete with canned laughter. At other times , Portia and Nerissa are caught up in a reality show and their semi-private lines are spoken on the settee of a Jerry Springer / Jeremy Kyle- type expose show.
Portia and Nerissa are shallow, glamorous, Southern Belles. If Venice is Las Vegas then Belmont is perhaps somewhere near the buckle of the Bible belt.
The director has clearly pondered where to draw the line between all the Americanisms and the traditional Italian back drop. So Padua, Venice and Belmont are retained in the lines that are spoken but ducats are now dollars (three million even) and the “fawning publican” becomes “fawning politician” just in case anyone had failed to notice that this is a critique of contemporary America – albeit a somewhat muddle-headed one.
So if everything is up-for-grabs then how would Goold shape Shylock for the 21st century? Well, with surprisingly little deviation from the norms. Shylock, as portrayed by Patrick Stewart, has a sharp suit, a more refined accent than the rest of the cast, but little else to offer. Tonight his voice was shot and he struggled to meet the energy of rest of the performance. However, he brought refinement to a stage where there was (deliberately) little. But unless he was suffering a particular throat problem, he will struggle to keep up to the pace in this setting.
Richard Riddell’s Bassanio sounds amazingly Scottish amongst the thick Brooklyn-ese of the rest of the cast and while at the denouement we are clearly meant to understand that he is entranced by Antonio rather than Portia, there is little in his performance up-to-that point that helps us to see the conclusion coming.
Jamie Beamish as Launcelot Gobbo / Elvis Presley is given a fair smattering of the King’s back catalogue…… It’s Now or Never, Blue Suede Shoes, American Trilogy, Are You Lonesome Tonight? ……..and curiously Roy Orbison’s Crying. The joke is, however, all on one note and when it began it made me cringe rather than laugh. I’m too much of a Shakespeare purist to see him meet “Jerry Springer – The Opera” and come off the loser.
Susannah Fielding’s Portia was the best thing about the night but she was given too much to do in bridging between a very broad Southern Belle and Portia’s “The quality of mercy……” speech. There is nothing to let us know how in a world of religion that brings only evil, there is one character who suddenly hits at the heart of the matter and she seems like an opportunist somehow finding the right note in her post-it marked text book. The play only works if we see the hypocrisy of both the Christian and Jew failing to live by the teachings of their faith and if this is done successfully then the contrast between that and Portia’s speech brings illumination. Here, there is no contrast and no sense that Portia is sincere rather than lucky.
Ultimately, we have the sight of Antonio dressed as a Guantanamo Bay detainee hung by a meat hook (because it would be wrong presumably not to highlight ALL that is remiss in American society) and It seemingly costing Shylock nothing to be forced to convert from Judaism to Christianity – as he speedily casts off his prayer shawl and learns with Gratiano’s help to cross himself.
The closing scene gives us a spastic incoherent Portia dancing with her wig whilst Bassanio only has eyes for Antonio and Elvis Presley, of course, continues to sing.
The reality is that Goold’s “novel” vision is not so new. But it is heavy handed and Shakespeare seems just a convenient vehicle rather than something which is enriched by all these additions. The modern Vegas scene and the parts of the vision that relate to it are well-handled but somewhere in the middle is Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice tossed and ship-wrecked like one of Antonio’s argosies struggling to make its way home.
The play is greater – much greater – than Goold’s modern vision and it is lost in all else that is here.
But this is a good night out at the theatre – and if that is what you are looking for you could do much worse – but do not expect to meet Shakespeare, I saw him shuffling out the back door at some point.