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Thursday, 26 May 2011

Jude Evans reviews The Merchant of Venice

Directed by Rupert Goold
Royal Shakespeare Company, Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
Wednesday 18th May 2011

Susannah Fielding as Portia and Emily Plumtree as Nerissa in The Merchant of Venice. Photo by Ellie Kurttz.
Photo: Ellie Kurttz

Yoda, Batman, an Elvis impersonator and a Barbie doll Portia – Goold’s production has it all. There are lots of laughs to be had; Goold certainly shows what makes this play a comedy. But, whilst emphasising the comedic elements, the play’s problematic side also rears its ugly head with considerable force. Goold shifts us from the hilarious to the utterly uncomfortable and grotesque in a production which truly grasps what Shakespeare’s play is about.

Goold thrusts his audience into a Las Vegas casino with showdancers, extravagant costumes and Elvis songs, sung by Jamie Beamish’s thoroughly entertaining Launcelot Gobbo. Tom Scutt’s design is striking for its gaudiness, bright blue with gold-railed staircases and an image of a golden-haired Vegas woman at the top, disturbingly resembling the shape of a cross. Initially, I wondered what I had walked into, and it took a good half hour to see how a Las Vegas setting could speak to Shakespeare’s beautifully problematic play. Despite the occasional moments when the American accents detract from the lyrical language, the result is: it works.

The Las Vegas setting reveals a world of excess and obscene wealth, where money is part of an ongoing game, constantly being exchanged from one pair of hands to another. Scott Handy’s Antonio is a man made ‘sad’ by his gambling losses, and Patrick Stewart’s Shylock is the grand master unusually assimilated into the Christians’ world. Pretence and falseness, both to oneself and to others, appear governing forces in a society of self-seeking individuals. Goold’s production reveals an incredible truth about Shakespeare’s play, that all the characters possess a cruel, unpleasant nature, and to sympathise with any verges on being absurd.

A shared racist attitude towards Shylock, and indeed the princes of Morocco and Aragon, steadily builds over the course of the production, culminating in Portia’s remarkable vindictiveness in the court scene. Stewart’s initially integrated Shylock is forced to envelop himself within a Jewish identity; he dons a cap and performs a short dance as an affirmation of his Jewishness, a beautiful touch. Stewart’s is an understated performance, one which effortlessly captures Shylock’s transition into a man driven into isolation and increasingly, also disturbingly, obsessed by the reward of a pound of flesh.

Challenging preconceptions, Goold places Portia at the centre of his production. And it is here that Goold makes his boldest move. Rather than the perfect heroine in her idyllic green world, Fielding’s Portia and her Belmont reflect the money driven city of Las Vegas. She is turned into a reality T.V. star, and her casket challenge a game-show, Destiny. This striking, southern-girl Portia appears a figure of superficiality until she surprisingly whips off her glamourous blond wig in front of Bassanio, revealing the face behind the celebrity doll. From then on, Fielding’s Portia spirals into loneliness as she begins to face her true reality of being trapped in a loveless marriage. It is a performance which on occasion feels a little too jarred, but one which will likely smooth out as the production progresses.

That course towards isolation and loneliness is most beautifully captured by Caroline Martin as Jessica, a role so often forgotten about. She begins alone in her father’s household, before leaving with lover Lorenzo to a seemingly more comforting world offered by the Christians. But the ending conveys her realisation of their treatment of Shylock; she walks away from Lorenzo conflicted and detached from everything.

Goold once again proves himself to be a daring director with this bold and innovative Merchant, almost certain to divide its audience. It stands as a most memorable production, not least because of its extraordinary final image: solitary figures spread across the stage accompanied by Elvis’s Are You Lonesome Tonight?

Jude Evans, age 22

Friday, 20 May 2011

Luke Harris reviews The Merchant of Venice

Directed by Rupert Goold
Royal Shakespeare Company, Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
Wednesday 18th May, 2011

Rupert Goold is known for his radical, conceptual directorial style. For the RSC's new production of 'The Merchant of Venice' he transports the world of Venice to the city of gambling, Las Vegas.

An entertaining and energetic pre-show establishes the themes of American culture and the atmosphere of a money orientated society. The glamorous and exuberant set, designed by Tom Scutt, involves gold plated staircases, TV screens and fruit machines. Rick Fisher's fantastic lighting design is suitably extravagant and music by Adam Cork supports the seamless scene transitions, often including Elvis Presley. Never could I imagine the King of Rock'n'Roll, the Glee hit 'Don't Stop Believin' and Duck Sauce's electronic dance track all featuring in a Shakespearean production.
Portia and Nerissa, played brilliantly by Susannah Fielding and Emily Plumtree, are MTV, Paris Hilton-like celebrities who host a game show to find a fitting suitor. It's crass and tacky but captures the comedic side to the play which is often ignored. Caroline Martin's Jessica is geeky and awkward, making something out of a slightly overlooked role. Patrick Stewart's Shylock is just as impressive as one would expect from a quality Shakespearean actor . His portrayal as a  humane yet narrow-minded Shylock is captivating and his Jewish heritage deepens and develops through all of his five scenes climaxing in an absorbing court scene which keeps you hanging off every word. Even though I know the story, the energy and atmosphere produced on-stage was rightfully intense and absorbing.

Goold's cinematic, story-telling aesthetic makes you feel like you are watching a blockbuster film, Ocean's Eleven style. His bold visual flair and his brave concept choices will split audiences, especially a traditionally reserved Stratford audience. Some will argue that his daring conceptual style diminishes the integrity of Shakespeare's themes, characters and story. But the world Goold and the ensemble create works, embracing the spectacle of the glitz and glamour of modern celebrity culture. There are imaginative moments throughout including a car ride and an elevator scene. Goold's genius reminds us all why he is one of the foremost British directors of our age as well as strong candidate to takeover the National or RSC in the future.

It is a thoroughly entertaining production that once again showcases the capabilities of the new thrust stage. Whether it will be a critical success is the big question, however I do believe it will encourage a new, younger audience to the RSC and that is why Goold is such a valuable asset to the company. Get a ticket and enjoy the magic!

Luke Harris, age 22

Sunday, 15 May 2011

Jude Evans reviews The City Madam

Directed by Dominic Hill
Royal Shakespeare Company, Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
Tuesday 10th May, 2011

Matti Houghton, Sara Crowe and Lucy Briggs-Owen in The City Madam.  Photo by Ellie Kurttz.
Photo: Ellie Kurttz

Massinger’s seldom performed play gets the outing it deserves on the Swan stage. Dominic Hill’s production shows just how wonderfully funny it really is, with the actors performing the heightened characters to superb effect. But beneath its laugh out loud surface, the production reveals the play’s deeper concern with the destructive forces of selfishness, greed and desire. Hill proves just how modern and relevant this play is for us today.

Set in the London of Charles I, Massinger’s city comedy dramatises the opulent and decadent nature of the Caroline reign. We follow Luke Frugal as he enters the household of his older brother, Sir John, where he is looked down upon by Sir John’s social climbing wife and daughters. Suddenly left in charge of the household, Luke begins to be corrupted by the world of money and wealth he has entered into. His journey is peopled by many characters, from those of new and old money, to a prostitute and a stargazer.

The audience will frequently be tickled by Hill’s production. Elaborate costumes, make-up and wigs are enough to trigger suppressed giggles, and coupled with the actors’ haughty mannerisms it is difficult not to burst out into laughter. But the play’s darker side is never far away. The elaborate features appear a sign of grotesque greed and opulence when viewed against Tom Piper’s brilliantly simple set. The design later complements the plain, prisoner-like costumes which appear as the production progresses. Tim Mitchell’s lighting also works to great effect. The stage is dimly lit by footlights giving the actors a rough, harsh appearance, and creating a dense atmosphere in the relatively small space of the Swan Theatre.

In a play with a large number of characters to portray, all roles are well performed by a strong ensemble cast. Jo Stone-Fewings is excellent as Luke, capturing his shifting nature as he becomes increasingly corrupt. The foolishness of Lady Frugal and her daughters is superbly played by Sara Crowe, Lucy Briggs-Owen and Matti Houghton who even manage to bring a touch of vulnerability to their roles and elicit a small amount of sympathy. And in the underworld, Pippa Nixon’s Cockney prostitute, Shave’em, is highly entertaining.

This is certainly a thoroughly enjoyable production, and one which resonates with our own time. It is wonderful to see the Swan back in full flow with stagings of seventeenth-century drama. And long may it last.

Jude Evans, age 22