As some old dowager quipped on the way to the interval, “It’s less Merchant of Venice than Merchant of Vegas.” Yes, there are remarkably few adaptations of Shakespeare that begin with a bequiffed Elvis impersonator singing a (remarkably good) version of Viva Las Vegas, complete with on-stage band, but there are even fewer that seek to translate Shakespeare’s difficult, still-controversial meditation on anti-Semitism, unrequited love and avarice into a showboating, no-holds-barred extravaganza. Still, doing the apparently unthinkable is director Rupert Goold’s stock in trade. When it fails – as with a dismal King Lear starring an ailing Pete Postlethwaite in 2009 – the results are embarrassingly poor. But, when it succeeds, as in his breathtaking stagings of The Tempest, Macbeth and Enron, he’s probably the most exciting director in British theatre today.
The appeal for Goold would seem to be the connections between the unfettered avarice that Vegas is synonymous with and the underlying sense in Merchant of Venice that everyone has a price. Thus Portia (a convincingly jittery Susannah Fielding) is compelled to take part in an X-Factor-esque live show called Destiny, where contestants choose between three boxes and hope to win a wife by so doing. Likewise, Antonio (a quietly compelling Scott Handy) finds himself on the receiving end of Mafioso-esque rough justice when Shylock demands the execution of his bond, dressed in the orange jumpsuit of a Guantanamo detainee and apparently faced with being brutally murdered without any recourse to the law.
It’s an endlessly febrile, challenging but immediately accessible and enjoyable reading of the play. In the midst of the showboating and extravagance, Patrick Stewart offers an intriguing performance as Shylock. Initially seen vainly potting golf balls in his office (as other critics have suggested, presumably he’s been denied entry to the country clubs on the grounds of his Jewishness), he’s equally determined to seek revenge for his daughter’s flight into the arms of a Christian as he is merely to recover his apparently lost wealth. Stewart, rapidly becoming the greatest older Shakespearean actor working in Britain today, offers a portrayal of Shylock devoid of sentimentality that’s never moving, exactly, but is certainly an uncompromising account of vengeful malice in a society where he’s hated in the most mundane and casual of ways.
Yet everything about this production is crystal clear, fresh and innovative. When it’s revealed that Lancelot Gobbo is the Elvis impersonator, it not only makes one of Shakespeare’s most annoying clowns a more intriguing character, but helps to illuminate his frustrated desire to be a more glamorous and successful figure than he actually is. And Portia here isn’t the conniving and brilliant woman of conventional presentations, but someone who has a delicacy and fear to her that makes her great legal coup de theatre less a moment of brilliance and more the luckiest of lucky breaks.
It’s a true pleasure to watch a production as skilful and nuanced as this, and it’s a full credit to the RSC that this, one of the premiere productions in their highly impressive new RST in Stratford-upon-Avon, sets the bar extremely high for the various other stagings that are going to follow over the next few years. When Shylock is asked, mockingly, “Are you contented?”, his answer might be one freighted with bitterness and cynicism, but the audience’s response is likely to be an altogether more sincere “Yes!”
The Merchant of Venice runs until 26th September 2011 at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon. For more information and tickets, visit the website.