Review: The Merchant Of Venice – Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford Upon Avon

What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas goes the saying, and in Rupert Goold’s exuberant transplanting of the neon-lit Nevada Strip instead of the original Venetian backdrop, the dark dealings played out in the Merchant of Venice seem ideal to remain behind the casino doors.

Except Goold chooses to play the racism, romantic fantasy and corporate battles that form one of Shakespeare’s most controversial plays in full public glare.

It is a staging that has, and will continue to cause consternation for purists, but the Vegas setting and vibrant production makes this most difficult of Shakespeare’s play’s wholly accessible.

Venetian trading halls are transposed into the gambling dens of Vegas as Shylock, despite his business success, finds that his Jewish faith closes more doors than it opens. It provides a backdrop for resentment and distrust that permeates the entire play. Money may buy you many things in Vegas, but it is no match for the institutional anti-Semitism that is prevalent in the society. What Shylock’s money does provide, in the form of a loan, is the opportunity for young Bassanio to try and win the hand of Portia, transformed in Goold’s production as the host of a reality TV game show called Destiny. In a hybrid of Blind Date and the National Lottery, Portia, bedecked in blonde wig and high school prom queen outfit, offers her hand in marriage to potential contestants.

As Shylock calls in his debt, the awful truth of how the money was secured is revealed and, once the cameras stop rolling and the wigs and make up are removed, Portia is left with the shattering reality that her Bassanio may in fact be more in love with trader Antonio than he is with her.

Goold’s knack of integrating strong visuals with an accessible approach to the text is again in evidence here. Alongside the relocation and the multi media there are other inspired choices here. Shylock’s servant Launcelot played as an Elvis impersonator may originally seem a gimmick to far, but as the dream dissolves into nightmare, the accompaniment of Presley numbers provides a suitable backdrop.

Patrick Stewart doesn’t shy away from making his Shylock a resolute character, unwilling to bend away from his perceived right, its not a likeable characterisation, but neither should it be. As Antonio Scott Handy brings a subtle sensitivity to the role, willing to risk everything for the friendship of Richard Riddell’s Bassanio.

There are also strong performances from Susannah Fielding as Portia, barely clinging onto reality, and Jamie Beamish as the rhinestone-suited Elvisesque Launcelot.

Tom Scutt’s design impresses, providing enough Vegas sparkle without overpowering the piece, Rick Fisher’s lighting adds an almost Broadway musical feel to the piece and Adam Cork’s score adds enough Vegas showgirl feel to cement the setting.

This Merchant of Venice may divide the traditionalists but for ingenuity and accessibility you’d be hard pushed to find a finer production than this. Well worth taking a flutter on.

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