The RSC’s most recent production of The Merchant of Venice is an ambitious and brave attempt by Director Rupert Goold to modernize one of Shakespeare’s ‘problem plays’. The Merchant follows the affairs of Antonio (Scott Handy), a prosperous merchant of Venice, as he leverages his overseas ventures to the moneylender Shylock (Patrick Stewart) in order to finance his love-struck friend Bassanio (Richard Riddell) in a quest to win the hand of the beautiful Portia (Susannah Fielding). The play presents a problem to modern audiences because it was originally conceived as a comedy, culminating in the humiliation (for comedic purposes, in the original script) of ‘the Jew’, Shylock. This juxtaposition between original comedy and the need to focus the audience on the issues of racism and anti-Semitism represented by the treatment of Shylock makes it a difficult play to stage with nuance.
Goold doesn’t shy away from the anti-Semitism of the text, but decides to tackle it head on. Goold deftly brings out the humanism in Shylock’s villainy and the racism in Portia and Antonio’s heroism. We are forced to watch and contemplate the barefaced anti-Semitism of the text in what Goold described as a “play full of individuals united by racism”. Completely rejecting any attempts at a period setting, the show is set amidst the avarice and superficiality of contemporary Las Vegas. Goold insists on forcing the play into the present with the use of car rides, ‘dollars’ instead of ‘ducats’, wigged reality TV stars, and a scene which takes place in a lift. In this context (and a plurality of American accents), Shakespeare’s text is lost in the cleverness of Goold’s vision. We spend more time, as an audience, trying to justify the set, costume, and time period than we do pondering the weighty ethical issues of racism, blame, oppression, fidelity, and superficiality raised by the text.
For instance, Portia is cast in this production as a blithering blonde southern belle for half the play before inexplicably reversing her intellectual chops for the famous ‘courtroom’ scene in Act IV. Portia’s marriage had been arranged in her father’s will – suitors would have to choose between three chests (gold, silver, and lead), and failing to find her portrait would swear to forgo marriage. Goold envisioned this as a reality TV show with a Britney Spears-cum-Anna Nicole Smith flavour. This trivialises Portia’s predicament and destroy the power of Shakespeare’s character (whose wit and sass align her with the Beatrice of Much Ado About Nothing) in one fell swoop.
There are moments where the glitz and glamour of Vegas produce strikingly appropriate connections between text and production. The masquerade scenes are amicably done as debauched romps on the Strip. The suggestion that ‘the Duke of Venice’ is, in fact, an underworld boss and that Antonio’s fate will be decided by the brutal justice of the mafia also fits. However, these are exceptions in the play for their lucidity and appropriateness. The only scene which commands any attention is the courtroom scene of Act IV, where a disguised Portia plays lawyer to save Antonio from the murderous justice of Shylock. The scene is tense, brutal, crushing and comic. The gamble of developing The Merchant of Venice into a dark comedy pays off in the perfectly performed peak and plummet of Patrick Stewart’s Shylock; in the jarring anti-Semitism of Portia; and in the agony of Antonio. The moral bankruptcy of the original anti-Semitism is placed in stark contrast by Stewart’s mesmerising portrayal of Shylock as an oppressed man possessed by the desire of revenge.
Stewart balances his Shylock between the villain in the script and the trodden-down, spat-upon, humiliated Jew which commends his character to so many modern theatre-goers. The audience watches after his daughter’s flight as he is taunted by characters who turn their ‘S’s into the ‘hisssssssssssss’ of Auschwitz. His response, the ‘Hath not a Jew eyes?’ speech, is second only in passion and performance to his speech before the trial. If there is a reason to see this play, it is Stewart.
In many places the play is genuinely funny. Launcelot (Jamie Beamish) is reimagined in this production as an Elvis impersonator, and his first soliloquy produced ripples of laughter. Beamish’s performance was spot on, and the audience laughed with him (where they laughed at the play in many other places). When the concept of this play gets described coherently, it sounds deceptively interesting, brave, and challenging: set The Merchant of Venice amidst contemporary Las Vegas in an effort to expose the hypocrisy and moral bankruptcy of the heroes. But, there is a je ne sais quoi in the execution that causes the whole to flounder. A multitude of small things fall flat: the contrast between the modern and the ancient; the jarring presence of Shakespearean language in a casino; the appearance of Yoda and Batman costumes; and the Elvis songs. In every scene, there is something which, like a sharp note in a flat key, suggests a mistake. The whole, in this case, is less than the sum of its parts.