Tuesday, 14 June 2011
Our Man in London: The Merchant of Venice
The Merchant of Venice
RSC, Stratford upon Avon
The Royal Shakespeare Company has recently spent over £100m on redeveloping its site in Stratford. That’s probably more money than Liverpool FC’s current crop of players is worth. The redevelopment has seen the main theatre extended and stage layout remodelled. It now has a stage which thrusts out into the audience even more so than at the Globe. The tiered seating also feels much like the Globe albeit with a permanent roof, but remember this is the Midlands and the sun has not been sighted in Stratford this century. I have no idea how the new theatre compares to the old one but by all accounts it is a vast improvement in every way.
The Merchant of Venice is another of Shakespeare’s problem plays (I am starting to think that they are all referred to as problem plays!). The main difficulty with this one is the overt anti-Semitism and racism. When I studied (I use that term lightly) this play as a student I felt uncomfortable about some of the language and feel just as unsettled by it now. Trying to tell myself that I needed to place the play in the context of the when it was written did not help. But setting this production in modern day Las Vegas somehow made it more palatable. Having spent a New Year’s Eve in Las Vegas undertaking some ‘field research’ one I can verify that unpleasant behaviour and language is rife there.
Shylock was presented as a property magnate, Antonio as a David Cameron lookalike with mobster friends and Portia as a dippy southern belle. The clown, Launcelot Gobbo, was reinvented as an Elvis impersonator. How on earth did Rupert Goold pitch this to the powers that be at the RSC? Before the performance I could not imagine how they were going to make this work, but in practice it was genius.
Once I had got used to the corny faux American accents and the occasional Elvis song (and at one point even Journey!) the dialogue increasingly seemed to fit the extreme characters and audacious stage set designs. For example, the competition to marry Portia whereby suitors choose between one of three caskets hoping to find her portrait inside was brilliantly turned into a game show called Destiny. The masque scene where Jessica escapes her father’s (Shylock) house is a New Orleans style mardi gras carnival which involves one of the characters delivering some of the dialogue with a Yoda impersonation. Batman and Robin are also present, of course.
Cast performances were strong all round, particularly Patrick Stewart’s Shylock and Susannah Fielding’s Portia. Patrick Stewart struck the right balance between being a Las Vegas character but also definitely separate from all the others. Remove the odd prop and his accent, clothes and dignified behaviour could have been used in many a Merchant of Venice production. Whereas Susannah Fielding’s extreme Portia perfectly suited this production but could not have fitted any other. Somehow this polarisation worked, probably because it clearly conveyed how Shylock is behaves and is treated as an outsider.
A clear sign to me that this daring production worked is that now I cannot imagine the play being delivered any other way. I come away from most Shakespeare plays with ideas about how I would do it differently but I really can’t imagine a better way of doing this one. Then again I might have replaced the Journey song with something a bit less ridiculous.
I never knew the Midlands could be such fun!
Next month I am off back to The Globe to see Much Ado About Nothing. Watch this space…
Adieu... from Our Man in London