Royal Shakepeare Theatre until 4th October 2011
Seldom do humour and horror keep such close company as in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. On the one hand, a beautiful heiress must be won by suitors choosing between three riddling caskets – the stuff of folk tale. On the other, financial gambling and religious hatred lead to a terrifying situation where a legal bond permits the exaction of a pound of a bankrupt merchant’s flesh, and his creditor is in no mind to show mercy. It is a play that manages to combine slightly absurd fairy-tale delight with the real darkness of prejudice and bad fortune, and director Rupert Goold was not afraid to play with both in his RSC production this year.
The portrayal of Venice as a modern, neon-plated, gambling metropolis is as bold as it is eye-catching. As we entered, the stage was already bustling. A night at the casino was in full swing, crap shooters and tiny skirts a-plenty, and this activity escalated - as the auditorium lights went down - into such a vibrant, all-singing, all-dancing Elvis number, that I must admit I was slightly disorientated by the time they started reciting Shakespeare.
The Vegas-like setting continued to influence both interpretation and tone. The winning of Portia (Susannah Fielding) through the caskets is portrayed as a TV game-show - Portia herself both presenter and prize, tripping about in high heels and a blonde wig, and talking to the camera in a giggly drawl. I did have initial misgivings about how this Portia would cope with the court room scene at the end and whether her whole story would be played just for laughs, but as the plot progressed I was surprised by how complicated she became. Fielding was confident in not only the comic but also the dramatic moments (such as when Portia’s love for Bassanio causes her to take off her blonde wig and admit herself to be an ‘unlesson’d girl, unschool’d, unpractised’), and the game-show proved an effectively claustrophobic setting, emphasising the motif of high hopes turned to disappointment which is more usually contained within the Jessica – Lorenzo story.
Patrick Stewart’s Shylock is understated, likeable and unusually dignified throughout – particularly at the end. Where many a Shylock has made his final exit crushed and humiliated, this one walks out with his head held high, still bearing to be spat at by the Christians as he goes. Shylock is much more of a closed book in this production than in many, and you do get the sense that the end of the courtroom scene was rushed, in order to arrive more quickly at the really juicy part of Goold’s interpretation: the trouble between Portia and Bassanio. Jessica too remained a shadowy figure, whose inner turmoil was hinted at more than played out.
In all, this production reinvented Portia and her journey with great sensitivity and imagination, but perhaps stopped short of fully unpacking the complexities of the other characters, who seemed to orbit around her. Having said that, the supporting cast was strong, frequently stealing the audience’s sympathy, and creating a vivacious world that had me fully entertained throughout.
This was a play of daring directorial decisions executed with confidence, and the result is an unusual and complex interpretation - hilarity with a sting in its tail. Far from ‘fair Belmont’ being a fairy-tale land where everything works out for the best, in this production everyone was prey both to the giddiness of love and the messiness of reality, and, in the end, no one’s life amounted to more than a gamble.