The Merchant of Venice
20 December 2014
“This play has always fascinated me. I didn't see the production at the RSC but I read about it, and knowing Rupert I thought, “What a good idea. That'll liberate the play.” All plays need an inventive approach, but the complications of this one really need to be brought out, and an all-embracing idea has to be found to give them life…Another thing – John Barton goes on about this and he's right – the plays are packed with contradiction and ambiguity. And if you get a specific handle on a production, sometimes the ambiguity gets wiped out. With The Merchant Of Venice, one of its thrills is that the whole experience is regularly fractured. Our approach highlights this.”
These are the words of Ian McDiarmid, currently appearing as Shylock in Rupert Goold's remounting of his much lauded production of The Merchant Of Venice for the RSC, currently playing at the Almeida Theatre. I say remounting specifically as this is not, by any measure, the same production audiences in Stratford saw. No. Here, the all-encompassing idea might be the same, but, as McDiarmid indicates, there is greater ambiguity and the experience is fractured repeatedly, as different characters or themes take centre stage.
This is not a bad thing. While this version may not be as funny as the RSC version, it also has a greater coherence. Just as all that glisters is not gold, so things are seldom what they seem. Ambiguity is the bedrock of Goold's vision here.
Goold's all-encompassing idea is to set the text in modern times at the greatest perceived money-for-nothing/chance Mecca on the planet: Las Vegas. This permits scenes of extravagance centred around gambling, garish reality television shows, stag parties, commercial deals, lawsuits, Elvis impersonators and the other detritus of money making and heartbreak. The sense of excess, grime and profligacy is all pervasive. And underneath it all, a clear smell of violence and peril.
Tom Scutt's design is overwhelmingly attractive. Seductive blue and gold enhances the structures where the action occurs – a casino playing room, a bridge, a canal, a television studio, a home. Each space comes immediately to life in front of the never changing, but garishly compelling, sense of Venice and Las Vegas: time and space are fused in the bauble land where Antonio and Shylock take their commercial risks.
So, while the setting is immediately familiar, it is also unreal, which allows the idea of the play being a cautionary tale, where motivations, morals and monsters can take unexpected form. Greed and choice become the central focus here.
It is an inspired idea to set Portia's hunt for a husband as a reality television show. Portia has no choice in her fate – her father's will has decreed she must marry the man who selects the correct casket, the one containing her image. The reality show format allows easy access to Portia's predicament, as well as providing genuine laughs. I have never seen these scenes work better on stage than they do here and Scutt's design is key to that.
There are other choices central to Goold's vision: Bassanio's choice to ask Antonio for 3 million dollars as a loan so he can woo Portia and thereby secure his fortune; Antonio's choice to help Bassanio, to go surety and to secure the loan on Shylock's specific terms; Jessica's choice to run away from her father, Shylock, and wed Lorenzo; Bassanio's choice of casket; Shylock's choice to enforce the bond; Portia's choice to offer Shylock a way out and his choice to refuse the offer; Antonio's choice to offer Shylock “mercy” and his to accept it; Bassanio's choice to give up Portia's ring and her choice to make him suffer for it; Antonio's choice to turn his back on Bassanio.
Each of these choices is also a gamble, and each has lasting repercussions. The Las Vegas setting helps in allowing the audience to focus on the gambling with life the play is driven by. It's by no means subtle, but it is a solid framing device. You cannot help but think of money and chance as each scene unfolds. The grotesque and exotic setting also makes you consider more carefully the nature of villainy as Shakespeare here explores it.
Who is the true villain here? Shylock is usually considered the villain of the piece, because he seeks to extract a pound of actual flesh from Antonio's chest. But Antonio agreed to the deal, knowing its terms, wanting to impress and curry favour with Bassanio. Why shouldn't Shylock have what Antonio willingly offered? Why should Shylock, who upheld his part of the bargain, have to bow to public pressure and not see his legal contract fulfilled? Especially where, prior to and after the bargain being struck, Antonio treats Shylock with such vicious contempt?
Is Bassanio the true villain? It is his profligate lifestyle and search for a quick buck which causes all the fortunes of the others to become so imperilled. He is a tease to Antonio, who clearly lusts after him, and he seeks Portia's hand, not for love but for her money. He tells the Court in the famous trial scene that he loves Antonio more than his own life, his own wife. He seems willing to say and do anything to be thought of well.
Portia provides the solution to Antonio's fate, but what does that solution say about her? The law she reveals which causes Shylock to be undone, to lose his property, is one that only affects “aliens” – a racist law – so Antonio could have demanded Shylock's flesh if the roles were reversed without any peril. Portia, often seen as the servant of the law and morality, happily lets this unjust law work to Shylock's detriment when it is not necessary – there is no legal reason why she could not let Shylock recant and accept the return of his principal. She has already been revealed as driven by money (else why does she not recant her father's legacy and find her own husband? This is the course Jessica takes after all) and racist (“Let all of his complexion choose me so.”) The trial scene shows her at her most agile and vicious; and it also shows her understanding of the barren future she has in store as Bassanio's wife.
These are issues Goold focusses on and explores in a thorough way in his animated and energetic production. He does not shy away from the play's anti-Semitic aspects, but nor does he seek to shy away from anything – the range of issues explored is fascinating; the way they are explored equally so.
Ian McDiarmid is an extraordinary and unique Shylock. He is as monstrous as can be, his accent especially so. Somehow, his accent encompasses any kind of Jew imaginable; sometimes he is near incoherent but the sense is always clear. He epitomises the kind of fantasy horror Jew which seems to be the way all the “Christian” characters in the play see him; yet, at the same time, he is a consummate businessman, an immaculate negotiator, a witty and wry raconteur and a hard father.
Throughout the first Act, McDiarmid's Shylock suffers indignation after indignation; he is abused and humiliated, ostracised, and rejected by his daughter. But all the while he maintains an ambivalence about whether or not he will enforce Antonio's bond. It is not until he has reached rock bottom, after Jessica has fled his home and religion, and he has realised how he has been tricked so that she could manage that, that he hardens – in front of you – determines to hold Antonio to the letter of the bond. So, his path to the knife at Antonio's chest is not set once the ink is dry on the paper – it is the actions of others, including Antonio, which propel him to demand “justice”.
He is electric in the trial scene, which is as exciting and attention-grabbing as you might expect. He is unrelentingly vile, giving back to his tormentors – of whom Antonio is the most vocal – an eye for an eye. His slow, methodical sharpening of his knife; the moment when McDiarmid traces out in black pen the lines of proposed incision on Antonio's bare chest is skin crawlingly awful. As is his demolition by, first, Portia, then Antonio and then the Duke. He is literally spat upon by his opponents and in an stunning display of anguish and woe drags himself out of the courtroom, exhaling a soul-shattering howl of rage and regret. It is, I think, impossible not to feel some sympathy for this Shylock.
Susannah Fielding is a Portia like no other. Ditzy showbiz glamour girl when in reality TV show mode, desperate and driven when off screen. When Bassanio chooses the correct casket (following her hints), Goold takes out all the flashy lights of the TV studio – as Bassanio gets his bride and her money, Portia and the audience see him as he is really is for the first time. Squirming, repellant, unsure. But that moment also strips Portia bare and Fielding is expert at playing the conflicting emotions and traumas that characterise this Portia.
Her work in the trial scene is magical. Fielding is desperate and wonderful – she rides the various waves as she tries tirelessly to save, first, Shylock, then, Antonio, and, finally, what is left of her marriage. The look on Fielding's face as she realises that her Bassanio does not love anything but himself is quite remarkable, as is her descent into madness when the silly business of the rings is over in the final scene: Fielding shows a raw, broken horror, the ghost of her life to come, as she dances in fragmented, monstrous despair, having comprehended that Bassanio's self-obsession is her life partner, while Jamie Beamish's Elvis-impersonator Lancelot Gobbo sings “Are You Lonsesome Tonight?”
Fielding is a luminous actress. She pours her soul into every phrase; her Portia will linger with you for a long time afterwards, so full of nuance, care and precision is her performance. It's not just the Quality of Mercy speech (beautifully done) but every aspect of the role. Is her Portia as dumb as she appears, or is that just the facade she erects to get by, the same way Antonio and Shylock affect facades? It's a good question – and Goold and Fielding really make you think about it.
Tom Weston-Jones excels as Bassanio. He is good-looking enough to believably stop Antonio in his tracks and flirts with everyone effortlessly. He is the omnisexual gigilo, narcissistic and capable of anything. It seems perfectly understandable when he turns up dressed as Hercules to choose the casket and win Portia's hand. Weston-Jones is in terrific form and in his hands, Bassanio comes off here as the really despicable character.
Completing the central quartet, Scott Handy's Antonio is the archetypal arrogant banker, sure his investments will make him money, believing he can buy anything, including Bassanio's love and body, and so aglow with racism and arrogance that he is willing to give his life as surety to a man he despises simply because of his race. Stiff, unpleasant, and then wretched but proud, even on the brink of death, Handy gives real, pungent and distasteful life to the the titular Merchant. It's a powerful moment indeed when he turns his back on the grasping Bassanio.
Caroline Martin makes a good Jessica, providing a real insight into the life of those who turn their backs on their own family and own religion to “change” themselves. Her work with Finlay Robertson's Lorenzo is excellent; providing a savage, real counterpoint to the lives of Portia and Bassanio. Two couples who think they get what they want – but regret it almost instantly. It's an interesting take.
There is excellent work too from Anthony Welsh as Gratiano, Emily Plumtree as Americas, Vinta Morgan as the Prince of Morocco and Mary Holden's Conscience.
Rick Fisher lights proceedings carefully and surely and Adam Cork provides good music for the piece. The interpolation of Elvis songs provides good opportunities for laughs and commentary, in almost equal measure; and Beamish attacks all that with relish.
This is not an ordinary Merchant Of Venice; it is distinctive in many ways. No one was more surprised than me that the use of American accents did not get in the way of the narrative or the verse; but it did not. Indeed, somehow the setting and the approach makes the whole experience that much more accessible.
It may not suit everyone, but if you embrace it on its own terms, it is a thrilling and insightful realisation of a play that everyone thinks they know and characters they think they understand. Days later, scenes and images and even snatches of dialogue still resonate with me, forcing me to think about what the production achieved.
2015 sees both The Globe and the RSC tackling The Merchant of Venice. No doubt that is a sign of the times being right for this demolition of commercial transactions and the horrors of treating people differently because of their difference. But both of those productions will need to be remarkable indeed to push aside the memories and lasting impressions of Goold's work here. Love it, like it or hate it – the Almeida's production is a great achievement, a milestone; one that will be discussed and debated for a long time.