Friday, June 03, 2011

'The Merchant of Venice' by William Shakespeare

3 June 2011

We returned to Stratford-upon-Avon last weekend to see the second RSC production created for the new Royal Shakespeare Theatre. After Michael Boyd’s Rottweiler production of ‘Macbeth’, Rupert Goold’s ‘The Merchant of Venice’ is a poodle of a show. Set in a Las Vegas casino, it’s completely over the top and incredibly entertaining. Rupert Goold is always inventive and ambitious: I still remember fondly his amazing productions of ‘Othello’, ‘Paradise Lost’, ‘Doctor Faustus’ and ‘Hamlet’ for the Royal Theatre in Northampton. Given the wonderful new RSC stage and a massive cast Goold is in his element with ‘The Merchant of Venice’, throwing everything and the kitchen sink at this notoriously difficult play. Making Launcelot Gobbo an Elvis impersonator allows for a series of big song and dance numbers. And a fancy dress party sets up a great sight gag when Shylock’s daughter Jessica flees from her father’s house dressed not as ‘a boy’ but as ‘The Boy Wonder’. Patrick Stewart’s Shylock is a still, series centre to the pantomime going on around him but ‘The Merchant of Venice’ is really Portia’s show and Susannah Fielding definitely steals it in this production. The inspired idea of setting the Belmont scenes (where suitors attempt to win Portia’s hand in marriage by choosing between three sealed caskets) as a TV gameshow (‘Destiny’) complete with video screens and ‘Applause’ signs is a triumph. It’s all lots of fun but ultimately it’s not Shakespeare’s best play and strangely I felt, given how fast and loose Goold plays with the setting, his failing was in being too reverential to the text which would have benefited from much greater cutting, particularly towards the end. It was very interesting to see the emphasis on a homosexual subtext to the friendship between Bassanio and Antonio, poignantly puncturing Portia’s success. ‘The Merchant of Venice’ very effectively shows off the capabilities of the new Royal Shakespeare Theatre but is probably not one for the Shakepeare purists.

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