Pros: A stunningly clever adaptation, faultless set design and excellent cast combine to create a memorable show.
Cons: The video screens showing live action were a touch out of synch with actors on stage.
The Almeida Theatre in Islington has a well-earned reputation as one of the great laboratories of British theatre and now presents the quirkiest production I’ve ever seen of The Merchant of Venice. Relocated to Las Vegas, the Bard’s tale of greed and power finds a comfortable home amongst the gamblers, roulette wheels and game machines. Despite its Vegas makeover, the threads of the story are still easy to pick out: Antonio agrees to lend his friend Bassanio the money he needs to win the affections of Portia, a wealthy heiress. However, Antonio’s money is tied up in trade ships, so suggests that he approach Shylock, a Jewish money lender to secure a loan. Antonio agrees to act as guarantor for the loan. Meanwhile, Portia complains to Nerissa that her father’s will require her suitors to choose a casket. Shylock agrees to the loan free of interest, but demands a pound of flesh from Antonio in the event of default.
The story is played out in a glorious homage to the excesses of Las Vegas. The action commences in a casino with an Elvis impersonator and slowly develops through a series of glamorous and glitzy set pieces. Portia’s deliberations with Nerissa are transformed into a blind date style TV dating show. Female cast members adopt Southern accents and sound hilarious speaking Shakespeare prose. The Prince of Morocco emerges as a potential suitor to Portia in the guise of a sharp talking heavyweight boxer, which is both weird and engaging at the same time. The set is simple but effective, morphing from casino to Rialto Bridge in Venice with apparent ease. Antonio’s subsequent arrest and trial is reminiscent of a Guantanamo Bay inquisition, bedecked as he is in orange overalls.
The cast were excellent throughout and I am loathe to single out individuals but here goes: Ian McDiarmid, veteran of three Star Wars’ movies, delivered a powerhouse performance as Shylock; Scott Handy was a wonderfully nervy and intense Antonio; Jamie Beamish as Lancelot Gobbo was a seriously good Elvis impersonator; and Anthony Welsh was a moody but charismatic Gratiano. But without a shadow of a doubt the star of the show was the beautiful, sexy Susannah Fielding as Portia; she managed to turn the character from frothy, Southern belle bimbo to dark, introspective schemer posing as a man during the trial.
Some might find this production far too gimmicky and feel the play’s subtleties are lost in a sea of flamboyant overkill, but I think it shows great panache and creativity on the part of director Rupert Goold. There are no rules in how to interpret the Bard nor should there ever be. I found the production a thoroughly enjoyable and refreshing change from the safe, conservative readings we normally get when this play is staged. If I were to criticise anything, it would be the TV screens dotted around the stage, which fired up to create the image of a game show; there were synching issues. But it would of course be impossible to get recorded footage to properly synch with live stage action. I almost feel embarrassed to mention it but such are the responsibilities of a theatre critic.
Author: William Shakespeare
Director: Rupert Goold
Producer: Royal Shakespeare Company
Box office: 020 7359 4404
Booking link: http://www.almeida.co.uk/event/themerchantofvenice
Booking until: 14 February 2015