The Merchant Of Venice at The Almeida

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After its initial, and triumphant, appearance at the RSC in 2011, Rupert Goold’s revelatory production of one of Shakespeare’s trickiest plays has returned for a belated London run at the Almeida – the perks of being the artistic director presumably mean that you can resurrect productions of yours that you didn’t feel had sufficient exposure first time round. Critics hailed Goold’s Vegas-set staging, which felt big, and glitzy, and operatic (like so many of his productions), but never short-changed the play. Helped by a titanic performance from Patrick Stewart as Shylock, it deservedly attracted a good deal of attention. How has its second coming fared?

The most obvious change is that Stewart, presumably busy or otherwise engaged, has not reprised his role, but he has instead been replaced by Ian McDiarmid, who is both a great stage actor and the former artistic director of the Almeida. McDiarmid brings a different energy to the part; rather than the calm, calculating passivity of Stewart that erupts into unexpected violence, he instead offers a camp, debonair man of wealth with a non-specific European accent whose desire for vengeance overwhelms him with tragic force. There are aspects of his performance that will divide audiences; the famous ‘Hath not a Jew eyes’ speech is underplayed, possibly to its detriment, but when he advances on the luckless Antonio (a stately, restrained Scott Handy), this Shylock clearly means to have his pound of flesh, to chilling effect.

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Many of Goold’s most entertaining innovations have survived, even despite the smaller stage that the Almeida offers – the play still begins with a splendidly entertaining rendition of ‘Viva Las Vegas’, sung by Jamie Beamish’s Elvis-impersonating Lancelot Gobbo, and the wooing of Portia (an excellent Susannah Fielding, reprising her role from Stratford) is still done as a grotesque reality TV show, with big smiles and ‘How y’all doing’ Southern accents to the fore. Goold’s satiric point is clearly to show that everyone in this thoroughly capitalist society has been corrupted by money (‘dollars’ replace ‘ducats’) and that it becomes all too likely that someone would run the risk of losing their life if they were to default on a loan. In the age of Wonga and its ludicrously inflated interest charges, the idea seems less comic than it might have done once.

Purists may quibble at some of the broader touches – Stephanie and Lorenzo eloping while dressed as Batman and Robin, for instance, offers a big laugh but doesn’t add a huge amount to the scene. And at nearly 3 hours, it’s a trifle too long. Yet it’s still funny, thrilling and crystal clear throughout, a testament to how Shakespeare can be accessible and contemporary in a valuable way. And you’re all but guaranteed to leave the theatre humming an Elvis song, even as ‘Suspicious Minds’ plays, ironically, as the lights go up.

Until 14th February. For more information and tickets, visit the website.

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