Writer: William Shakespeare
Director: Rupert Goold
Reviewer: George Attwell Gerhards
If a production makes you wonder, upon leaving, why a certain play is still performed there is something wrong, right? Such is the case with your reviewer and the production of The Merchant of Venice opening at the Almeida, revived from the RSC from 2011. While the inevitable discussions about how ‘problematic’ the play is can tend to get quite boring after a while it is worth stressing just how ridiculously barbaric and stupid a play The Merchant of Venice is.
Bassanio (Tom Weston-Jones), a young gentleman of Venice, in need of money to pursue the fair Portia (Susannah Fielding), borrows from Jewish moneylender Shylock (Ian McDiarmid) upon the credit of Antonio (Scott Handy) – the eponymous merchant. When trouble at sea leaves Antonio unable to repay Shylock, the latter seeks revenge in the shape of a pound of the former’s flesh. So far, so good. However, add into the mix three caskets with which the fate of Portia’s marriage will be decided and some cross dressing for good measure and things start getting a little messy. The narrative tropes normally reserved for comedies (and we must remember that Merchant is a comedy no matter how little we laugh) sit awkwardly with the darker central plot and leave audiences asking questions about who these characters really are and whether we care about what happens to them. In romantic fiction, for instance, it is traditional to root for the lovers but after witnessing the romantic leads’ treatment of Shylock (in particular Portia and Gratiano who hold nothing back in this production) audiences should have nothing but contempt for them, shouldn’t they?
Within the context of what is a bizarre play, this is also a fairly bizarre production. Situated in Las Vegas, you would expect some satire on the greed culture with a bit of Hunter S. Thompson thrown in, however it wears its setting very lightly and once we’re past the interval we could be anywhere but for the accents and the occasional appearance of an Elvis impersonator. Tom Scutt’s set opens as a fairly impressive casino floor and an entertaining pre-set of colourful characters sets the tone splendidly. However this all too quickly gets stripped back and never replaced. Rupert Goold chooses for his final image to have his three couples (and Antonio) spread around the stage looking sombre, as Portia with wig in hand and one stiletto on twirls on the spot and loses her balance to the sound of Elvis crooning overhead. It is then, and only then, that a glimpse into Goold’s intention for this production can be found, but it is left wanting. Having his heroes appear empty in victory could perhaps be a remark on the vacuousness of the pursuit of money in places like Vegas – were it not too forgettable that Vegas was the background at all.
Otherwise, this is a fairly good production. McDiarmid is a wonderful Shylock – likeable and humorous but able to switch to sinister with a drop of an eyebrow. Similarly, Fielding excels as a superficial Portia, even when restrained by the reality-TV-cum-quiz-show idea for the casket picking that has been layered on thick by Goold. All in all then, there are some excellent performances on show; as well as the promise of some good ideas to approach an impossible play. However, the very idea that the play should seem impossible after having just seen it performed is testament to how much this production fails.
Runs until 14 February 2015