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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


  1. We seek originality in new presentations of Shakespeare (I suppose) in order to confirm our belief that, somehow, there is more flexibility built into his plays than into the work of most other dramatists.

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