The Merchant of Venice is a tricky one. The end is too convenient and happy to fit with the rest of it and the money-borrowing goodies (Christians, obviously) are as nasty as the money-lending bad guy (Jewish, obviously). Rupert Goold’s new production at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre has an ingenious setting to deal with all this sin and stereotyping: Las Vegas (obviously).
The play opens to blackjack tables, fruit machines, waist-coated croupiers, hot-panted waitresses, boisterous jazz and every cliché you’d expect: cowboy hats, long flowery tourist shorts, shiny suits, and those green visors that are only popular with Americans and my grandma. To complete the picture is Jamie Beamish’s Launcelot Gobbo as an Elvis impersonator and a lonely drunk (Scott Handy’s melancholic Antonio). With American accents, Yoda masks, and the odd Godfather reference to boot, we are spending much of the evening in Shylock’s casino. The place reeks of superficiality and money and is therefore ruddy perfect.
Patrick Stewart plays Shylock and after the successes of recent Stewart-Goold partnerships (The Tempest and Anthony and Cleopatra at the RSC in 2006), much is expected and much is delivered. Stewart modernises the character into a ruthless, competitive businessman and in doing so, deals with the controversial anti-Semitism that sometimes trips up productions. There’s a sense they’re all as bad as each other; he’s a Jew and he’s a racist git just as the others are Christians, and racist gits.
The shining light is Susannah Fielding’s Portia. She plays the American rich-girl-next-door: part cheerleader, part beauty queen, part Jessica Simpson. A blonde bimbo with a blinding smile and ankle-breaking heels, she has her own TV show ‘Destiny’ in which she is the prize. She delights the audience as she flicks between her comic showbiz personality and her true self; a tearful brunette nervous before her first kiss with her groom.
There are hints of homosexual longing between Antonio and Bassanio that exemplify the many undercurrents that threaten to pull apart the sparkly capitalist world the Christians so love. Properly then, this world deals with its problems in the shadows and the Shylock/Antonio debt culminates in an underground Mafioso-inspired trial in an abattoir. It is here that Handy (Antonio), who is largely overshadowed, steps up to provide an exhilarating performance as he senses his impending doom.
With all the music and Americana it could almost be a musical, but Shakespeare knew about Vegas, he warned that ‘all that glitters is not gold’ and when all the shiny layers get stripped away, we see what a protection they served. The play ends with everyone exclaiming how they’re chuffed as chips, but with the wigs pulled off and the wedding ring on, there’s a wonderful lasting image of four newlyweds who barely know each other and an Antonio who’s as lonely as ever.
Goold’s production puts a pile of stereotypes on a roulette wheel, whirls them round until all the glitz and capitalism is shaken off, and out staggers a bunch of lonely, dishevelled hypocrites, Christian or otherwise. It’s a vibrant must-see for those who like Shakespeare, but not the boring way.
The Merchant of Venice is on at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre from 13 May to 4 October 2011
To buy tickets or for more information please check this site: http://www.rsc.org.uk/buy-tickets/the-merchant-of-venice/