“The Merchant of Venice” by William Shakespeare

at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Wednesday 18th May

You can say what you like about the RSC – that they represent the establishment, don’t push boundaries and have too much funding – but, like Michael Boyd’s recent Macbeth, Rupert Goold’s production of The Merchant of Venice proves that the company is once again trying to take risks, reinterpreting classics and showing them to be more than the stale stage versions we often see. Although Goold’s production isn’t without its faults, it presents a spectacle and a highly charged concept which brings out elements of Shakespeare’s text which weren’t previously evident.

Opening in true Gooldian style, with a casino pre-show followed by a song-and-dance routine, this Vegas production is brought headlong (gettit?) into the twenty-first century, and, for the most part, the text survives relatively intact. The world of excess in which the characters find themselves fits the themes of risk and greed perfectly and, like Goold’s ENRON and Earthquakes in London previously, we get a vision of a world obsessed by the material. Shifting the world of Belmont to a Deep South game show – “Destiny” – is nothing short of genius, offering a performative mirror to the showiness of Vegas.

The play, so often associated with racism, here becomes something different; this testosterone-fuelled world is exclusive of any sort of difference, showing our society to be a despicably intolerant one. The religious zealotism of America is the focal point – like gambling, believing in any form of god or otherwise is a risk. Some extraordinary moments in this production come through the sometimes heavy-handed concept. The ‘Destiny’ game show scenes are truly tense, and the final trial scene is stunningly performed by all.

In fact, the weakest link in this production is also its star name. Patrick Stewart, once again, plays Patrick Stewart, although this time with a dubious American accent. His two registers are more pronounced than usual, and he never portrays enough gravitas for us ever to take notice. The “If you prick us” speech comes out of nowhere and his voice simply limps through the space. Far more engaging are Jamie Beamish’s fantastical Launcelot ‘Elvis’ Gobbo and Howard Charles’ vicious Gratiano. Scott Handy provides a contemplative Antonio, and Richard Riddell’s Bassanio is the confident leader of a group of ‘Lads on Tour’. The performance of the evening, however, comes from Susannah Fielding’s aspirational Portia, whose pretence of putting on a classy public persona eventually forces her to break-down.

Tom Scutt’s garish blue and gold set-design evokes the trashy showiness of Vegas casinos, and Rick Fisher’s lighting makes the reflective surfaces both glamorous and grungy. Adam Cork’s music utilises Elvis, Duck Sauce and Glee, providing a perfect backdrop to Goold’s excessive world.

Although Goold’s concept sometimes comes through at the expense of the text in the first half, there are plenty of moments in which Shakespeare’s words are heard loud and clear. Some great performances and hilarious gags make this a highly watchable production which doesn’t see any issues with this ‘problem’ play. Goold and his team have once again created a spectacle, emphasising a material world, ploughing through and never looking back.

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