Review: The Merchant of Venice

Gamble pays off for Merchant of Vegas


After the Royal Shakespeare Company's recent Romeo and Juliet, I decided that I would like every play that I did not particularly want to see to be directed by Rupert Goold, a magician who can make three hours feel like two.

That sense is reinforced here by Goold's astounding production of The Merchant of Venice, a play I no longer dread as much I used to, but with its barbaric Jew Shylock, played here by a ruthless Patrick Stewart, is still way down my wish-list of things to see.

For this Merchant think not of 16th- century Venice, but 21st-century Vegas. Designer Tom Scutt has converted the RSC's wonderfully intimate new thrust stage into a casino. There are fruit machines and croupiers, high rollers and small-time gamblers, and overlooking this temple of vice is a divine figure in familiar pose with outstretched arms. Except that this is a female deity and she is suspended not on a cross but a roulette wheel behind which sits a big band who accompany a jump-suited Elvis (played by a sweet-voiced Jamie Beamish). As the King serenades the action, it turns out this tribute act's day job is as Gobbo, Shylock's Jew-hating servant.

Among all this mayhem is a man sitting still at the blackjack table - the biggest gambler of them all, Antonio, played by a suave, if at times rather underpowered Scott Handy. Appropriately enough for a play set in Vegas, the production takes high-stakes dramatic gambles which on the whole come off brilliantly even if Goold, still in my view, falls into some of the traps and tropes of portraying Jews on stage.

For even in this godless city they go about with the inevitable kippah on their head, a prop directors seem to think the audience need at least as much as the on-stage Jews who wear them. If ever there was a chance to portray Shylock as culturally Jewish and instinctively secular - a Jew forced into displays of Jewishness by the Christians around him, this was it. That chance is almost taken, with Stewart's Shylock at first appearing as nothing other than a casino-building businessman, but it is not a notion fully explored.

It is the ideas and their execution that astound

This is in many ways a post-Holocaust Merchant of Venice. And the play's centuries-old antisemitism is given a modern twist when Aidan Kelly's Mafia-like wise-guy Solanio greets Shylock with a hiss - not the kind heard in pantomimes when the baddie appears, but the kind heard in gas chambers. It appears to go entirely unnoticed by Shylock until Stewart uses it to brilliant effect in the "Hath a Jew not eyes" speech during which Shylock turns on Solanio as he asks: "If you poison ussssssss, do we not die?"

Stewart is at his powerful best when transmitting the seething hatred that exists beneath the silk-suited charm, and which emerges as sadism when Shylock terrifyingly taunts Antonio with the knife he brought to cut out a pound of the Christian's flesh.

As is usually the case with Goold, it is the production's avalanche of ideas that are more conspicuous than any individual performance. In the setting of gamblers and gangsters, Shakespeare's characters and language bring to mind Damon Runyon's, and in this semi-musicalised show you half expected Handy's Antonio, Richard Riddell's thuggish Bassanio and especially Howard Charles's streetwise Gratiano to launch into a version of Luck Be a Lady from Guys and Dolls. If they had, it would not have been out of place.

And then there is Susannah Fielding's remarkable southern belle Portia - a portrait of dumb-blonde, prom-girl prissiness complete with teased hair and high heels and who, rather like the lead in Legally Blonde, turns out to be a deadly sharp operator in the courtroom.

Fielding gives the standout performance here. But more than anything it is those ideas and their execution that astound - the audacity of having a hip-gyrating Elvis serenading Shylock's daughter Jessica with Are you Lonesome Tonight?; and the daring of delivering of a gob-smackingly entertaining version of this often austere play, and then shifting it to tragedy with a desolate interpretation of the final scene. Purists may balk, but I doubt they can resist.

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