May 27, 2011, by Peter Kirwan

The Merchant of Venice (RSC) @ The Royal Shakespeare Theatre

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Rupert Goold’s new production of The Merchant of Venice for the RSC has already caused something of a stir in the press, dividing critics and audiences alike. Despite the presence of a star name in Patrick Stewart in the cast, this was not the traditional Merchant that many may have hoped for, but rather a full-scale reinvention of the play that offered an ugly, frank, hysterical and provocative presentation of alternative issues thrown up by this problematic play.

The production was set in Las Vegas, with the audience arriving to find a casino evening already in full swing, presided over by an icon of a busty table girl splayed out as if a crucifix. Money was this production’s church, and an ensemble of American tourists were already hard at the craps table. A live big band kept up a rollicking underscore, building in volume and speed until Jamie Beamish rose from the masses, a Launcelot Gobbo as Elvis impersonator, who launched into "Viva Las Vegas" accompanied by a bevy of scantily clad dancers. The tone was set for the evening – noisy, brash, colourful and irreverent. Beamish’s Launcelot burst into song throughout the production with covers of old standards, keeping the crowd entertained and the atmosphere light; yet as a more sombre mood began to permeate the performance, so did the songs begin tending towards ballads and a darker sensibility.

The company made a huge effort to make the concept coherent. All the cast put on American accents, some with more success than others – Howard Charles and Aidan Kelly were wonderful Brooklynites as Gratiano and Solanio, while Portia and Nerissa were note perfect as Southern belles. Others were horrendous, and Scott Handy in particular, as Antonio, kept slipping between his native and adopted dialects. The frustration is that English accents wouldn’t have been a stretch for an audience willing to buy into the conceit. Shakespeare sounds wonderful in natural American accents, but to watch English actors concentrating so hard and internalising their performance in order to get a voice right was deeply irritating, and meant that less effort went into the performances themselves. It wasn’t a fatal flaw, but one wished that the actors had just used their natural accents.

Locations were intelligently re-set. Shylock, Solanio and Salerio met in an cafe where hookers were taking their morning coffee; the masquers rode to meet Jessica in a mimed car with blaring rap music; deals were struck in the lavish offices of casino managers; one beautiful sequence saw the Sallies discussing Antonio’s fall in an elevator with other characters coming and going; Antonio was arrested by Shylock at the Cirque du Soleil, where the merchant was hiding in the front row of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre while a trapeze artist twirled above; and Launcelot battled his conscience while sitting on a slot machine stool, while two PVC-clad women in white and red acted out Conscience and the Fiend. There was an issue of too much time going into ingenious settings and not enough into the dynamics of the scenes themselves – when the stage finally quietened to allow dialogue scenes of two or three characters talking, the play felt comparatively flat and under-rehearsed. As the play went on, though, the nuances of the performances began to manifest themselves.

The most fascinating aspect of the conceit was the recasting of Belmont as a TV reality show called "Destiny", which aimed to marry off Portia live on air. Susannah Fielding was the blonde star, Emily Plumtree the programme’s host, and the two were surrounded by video screens, cameras and backstage flunkies. The two women sat on a sofa and spoke in deliberately affected tones, pausing for canned laughter and groans as they reported the characters of the suitors. Each "episode" ended with the two speaking a catchphrase direct to camera. The deliberate superficiality of the format gave a satiric slant to the sequences, but darker elements could gradually be viewed beneath. As Chris Jarman’s Morocco, a boxer, jogged on stage, hecklers threw bananas at him in an ugly moment of racism; but far more troubling were Portia and Nerissa’s own fixed grins as they stared pointedly ahead towards the camera. As soon as Morocco left and the studio lights clicked off, Portia’s face collapsed and she shuddered as she wished that none of his complexion might ever win. The latent racism in the character extended to the extremely patronising treatment of Caroline Martin’s Jessica, to whom Portia spoke as if a little child. Nerissa and Portia aimed to give Jessica a makeover, but this particular session ended with Jessica storming out eating the cucumber which had previously been resting on her eyes. Jason Morell’s Arragon, meanwhile, was a Mexican cleaner who was beckoned by a stage hand onto the set, dressed up and forced to perform and wave gormlessly at the cameras.

Fielding’s performance was the standout of the evening, creating a complex and deeply scarred persona whose gradual decline was fascinating to watch. In early scenes there were clues, as she scrabbled at her head and shook convulsively after the cameras had moved away. This was a Portia broken by the enforced performance that defined her, which culminated in her song of "Tell me where is fancy bred" to Bassanio as he chose between the caskets. The caskets themselves – made up like gameshow boxes – had previously yielded a diamond-encrusted skull and a shrivelled jester’s head; but the lead casket delivered a remote control to Bassanio, with which he turned on a screen that revealed Portia speaking the victory verse. As the screen Portia did this, the stage Portia removed her blonde wig (to gasps from the audience) and stepped off her enormous high heels, baring herself before her new husband. At the same time, all the paraphenalia of the reality show disappeared, including her entourage. A confused Bassanio greeted her with a kiss but continued to look around in confusion; while she looked pleadingly at him, asking him to see the true her beneath the performance. Upon the re-entrance of Gratiano and Nerissa, she hastily threw on her wig and shoes again, appearing slightly more dishevelled but unable to confront the world without her disguise.

The vulnerability displayed by Fielding in this moment informed the remainder of her character. Her performance in the court scene was unpersuasive – we had seen too little of the character’s intelligence and spontaneity to believe "Bellario’s" quick-thinking reactions during the trial, even if Fielding and Plumtree both effectively conveyed the panic of the two women outside of their carefully-controlled setting. More powerful, however, was the look on her face as Richard Riddell’s Bassanio embraced Antonio, and then after his release held him tightly in a downstage corner. One could see her heart breaking as she sized up the connection between the two men, a connection which entirely excluded her. Upon the return of the two men to Belmont, Portia’s face again fell, and she continued to watch the two men casually touch one another and speak of their love. She sat between them on a couch, and as Antonio offered to pawn his body for his friend, the two men took hands behind her. Trembling, Portia got up, took up her wig again and slipped on one of her heels. Summoning up a fractured remembrance of her gameshow character, she excitedly distributed prize envelopes to Lorenzo, Jessica and Antonio, her voice rising in unhinged excitement. Then, following Gratiano’s final lines, she slid off her wig in despair and, as Launcelot began trilling "Are You Lonesome Tonight?" she began dancing slowly with her fake hair, stepping on and off her one remaining shoe. It might not have been subtle, but it was a heartwrenching depiction of rejection and failed trust. Portia’s risk in exposing the girl beneath to a man she loved had been too great, and there was nothing left for her to cling to but the remnants of the disguise that had always defined her.

While Portia provided the most powerful emotional through line, the other performances were largely also strong. Patrick Stewart was fine as Shylock, bringing a quiet dignity and occasional oddities to the role. The issue of anti-semitism was largely subordinated to wider concerns of racism and superficiality, but Stewart (first revealed playing golf in his office) became more identifiably Jewish as the play progressed, appearing at home in a yarmulka and whispering a Yiddish goodbye to Jessica; then later appearing in robes for the trial scene. An anger manifested itself at times, including in a passionate dance before the interval hit and in his shrugging off of his robes and callous laugh after his "conversion". Considering that Stewart is an obvious star name, however, Shylock felt rather incidental to this production, operating as a driving force for the plot rather than as the central attraction.

The trial scene was imagined as a mob execution, carried out in a cold room beneath one of the casinos, where police officers in the pay of a local gangster (Des McAleer’s Duke) put Antonio on a box and tied his wrists far above his head. This was the scene that struggled most in the modern setting, but still had some wonderful moments, not least Shylock pulling forward the silent Arragon, now back in his cleaner’s garb, as an example of the abuse of other peoples by the "Venetians". The build-up towards Shylock cutting into Antonio’s flesh was painful, with Portia’s intervention being left until the last possible second.

This production will be talked about for years, and represented a triumph for director-led concept theatre at the RSC. While it will no doubt offend many, and while Goold still needs to give the same attention to actors that he accords to design and concept, this was a truly revolutionary Merchant that found new life in the play beyond Shylock’s tragedy and made the powerful case that, ultimately, it’s impossible to find any redemption in a society so concerned with surface. All that glisters really isn’t gold.

This review originally appeared at Shakespeare Revue.

Posted in Theatre review