From first you walk into the auditorium of the new Royal Shakespeare Theatre at Stratford for Ruper Goold's new production of "The Merchant of Venice", you will know you have entered a space ready to present a reinterpretation of the text's setting that is likely to divide critical responses. I'll try and avoid taking all the fun out of the 'shocks' the production presents, but inevitably there will be some here. Call it 'spoiler-ish' if not quite 'spoiler-lite'.
Casino settings for this most money-driven narrative are not new - indeed only earlier this year did Derby's production of Merchant adopt a similar approach (it used a Manhattan 1920s format). But utilising a long-reported concept from John Logan of taking Merchant to a Las Vegas casino, Rupert Goold gives this version of Merchant the full-blown Elvis treatment.
The Logan idea reportedly arose from a conversation in 2007 between the Star Trek writer and Patrick Stewart where Logan called Merchant "a loathsome play" and Stewart sought to defend the play (see this Argus report when Stewart was about to embark on the Chichester premiere of his previous collaboration with Goold, the much-acclaimed Macbeth).
Merchant is undoubtedly a very uncomfortable play for modern audiences. It is classed as a comedy, and indeed this production is extraordinarily funny (though there were some braying laughers in the audience who didn't always seem to get when this was less appropriate). It is unavoidably racist: something again 'played up' by this production in some quite horrifying ways: for example, when the Prince of Morocco enters with the line "Mislike me not for my complexion" the act that accompanies this takes you back to the taunting faced by black footballers in the 1970s and 1980s. And the final act is probably one of the most disjointed in tone when set against its predecessor: the comedic business of husbands, wives and rings set against the resolution of the court sequence when Shylock has been demanding his bond forfeit of "a pound of flesh".
This production takes all of these points head on and more: the updated monetary values (from 3000 ducats to 3 million dollars) creates resonance with contemporary worlds of gambling and finance; all talk of destiny in relation to Portia's beholden commitment to a game of choice for her future is given a 'whoop and holler' glitz that nevertheless highlights the restrictions of Portia's options as an orphaned daughter; and there are the visually innovative uses and creations of space that we can now expect from Goold's creative use of space (lifts and cars are hilariously conveyed to the audience with the sort of panache one might expect more from the recent production of The Thirty-Nine Steps).
As one may expect, Stewart is on fine form, investing his Shylock with suitable frustration and contempt for Antonio from the start. It is a contempt that cracks over into venomous persistence for the forfeit once Shylock losses his beloved if ill-treated daughter Jessica, something that robs Shylock of his one prize valued beyond monetary worth. Again, Scott Handy proves an emotional catalyst to a production without being overwrought. As much as he is the eponymous Merchant, our first sight of Antonio is at the overnight nigh-empty tables of the casino in the thrust stage's pre-text preamble. He looks less like a high-risk financier than a gambler preoccupied with other thoughts --- thoughts of his friend Bassanio (a never especially over-stated 'love'). It is hardly surprising he gambles and loses so badly in the course of the play. Additionally, though their first appearance caused outraged gasps and giggles from the audience, Portia and Nerissa (Susannah Fielding and Emily Plumtree respectively) are vivid characters who make the adoption of a particular type of regional accent seem like the most natural directorial decision imaginable. Fielding especially manages to convincingly portray desperate uncertainty in the power of faithful love at end of the play's erratic Act 5 and lends a Blanche de Bois-style unravelling of self to her performance of Portia.
The RSC music ensemble are here given a rip-roaring opportunity to jazz things up; alongside Jamie Beamish's Launcelot Gobbo there's an alternately acerbic and bleakly hysterical edge to the production in its use of jazz and pop. Beamish - who was similarly well-used as the bleak comedian Seyton in Macbeth - certainly deserves some plaudits for taking on a cartoonish figure and succeeding in making him apt to the whole play. Even if I did get various flashbacks to the quirky world of Blackpool (the programme rather than the place).
This was only the second audience performance of the play, and they've clearly got some ironing out to do. Though I graciously interpreted the final scene as performed as intended, there may well be aspects of it that were somewhat unintended (e.g. Portia and her shoes). More dramatically the running time is clearly not as planned: it started at 7.15 and the programme estimates the play will run 2 hours 45. Even allowing for the preamble (which makes knowing WHEN the play has started a little difficult to exactly pinpoint) and a slightly over-run interval, this still didn't let us out until after 10.30pm which makes it at least 30 mins over-running. Some trims and practice with certain scenes are likely to tighten this, but I still reckon audiences should bank on it averaging 3hours instead. Having said that, it doesn't drag and even though I estimated it should have finished by around 10pm (as it should have) it is only the play's internal quirk of that bizarre final act that renders the finale less dramatic than it could be.
There are three more performances before the Press Night and I'll be interested in seeing how critics react to this come Friday/weekend. I have a horrible nervous feeling they'll hate it, a kind of backlash against Goold's style of directing that has often edged close to excess and here is given extreme full-reign. I really hope they like it. There may need to be a little less Elvis (though not too much less, since Beamish is so endearing as the songster narrator Launcelot Gobbo), but I hope it keeps it's Vegas spirit and defies the critics. It's one helluva ride.
Overheard in the theatre
At the interval: "So, do you think Shakespeare would be turning in his grave?"
At the end: "So apparently it was written by Elvis..." (to which Neil tartly muttered "Lieber and Stoller actually" --- though that's probably only true of selected aspects of the production).