The Merchant of Venice

Posted by Laurence Green

Laurence Green views a Rupert Goold's seriously flawed production of The Merchant of Venice.

Ian McDiarmid as Shylock in Merchant of Venice at Almeida Theatre

Shakespeare’s problem play has been given a modern makeover in Rupert Goold’s production of The Merchant of Venice (Almeida Theatre) but the result is a bizarre concoction that borders on parody.

In a faraway place, a wealthy heiress is looking for a husband. Back at home a merchant is looking for a loan. Everyone’s out to make a killing but everything comes at a price.

The action in this production has been moved to Las Vegas, a brash, phoney world of glitter, gambling and greenbacks, and dollars have replaced ducats as the currency here. In fact, we’re in a casino, garishly fitted with starry wallpaper, bridge-themed central stairway, gilded palm trees, one-armed bandits and 24 hour TVs. There is even an Elvis impersonator belting out Are You Lonesome Tonight? backed by scantily clad showgirls. But he turns out to be aggrieved money lender Shylock’s disgruntled, obnoxious servant Lancelot Gobbo.

Goold’s updating is seriously flawed. He fails to capture the subtlety , paradoxes and psychological depth of the original while pathos, plausibility and dramatic tension are diminished. Furthermore it is hard to believe that Las Vegas should be a hotbed of anti Semitism.

Possibly the most original idea of this production - first staged by the RSC in Stratford in 2011 – which really works is having Portia and her friend Nerissa vet the former’s suitors by means of a reality television quiz show all fake smiles, hick accents, rehearsed speeches and cosmetic golden girl looks. The trial scene, too, which is perhaps the best in the whole production, does at least generate a fair amount of tension.

Ian McDiarmid makes a petulant, supercilious Shylock, whose determination to have his pound of flesh seems odd to say the least in this setting. Scott Handy, though, brings a strong emotional truth to the role of the melancholic merchant Antonio, while Tom Weston-Jones is a charmless Bassanio.

The best performance comes from Susannah Fielding as a Southern-accented, baby-doll Portia, whose transformation from clueless-styled airhead to sharp-witted lawyer when disguised as a man, in the climactic trial scene, certainly makes you sit up and take notice.


The Merchant of Venice

Runs at The Almeida Theatre until Saturday 14 February 2015.

Box office: 020 7359 4404 

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