The Theatreguide.London Review
Almeida Theatre Winter 2014-2015
This is Director's Theatre with a vengeance. Director Rupert Gould and designer Tom Scutt impose their vision on Shakespeare willy-nilly, and some of it works, some doesn't, and some leaves you wondering what they thought they were doing.
It is very colourful and theatrical, and best appreciated for its broad strokes. But if you look too closely or pause to think about it you'll find too much that just gets in the way of the play.
(Reminder: to finance his wooing of Portia, Bassanio borrows from Antonio, who borrows from the Jew Shylock, who in an apparent joke writes into the bond that forfeiture entitles him to a pound of Antonio's flesh. Antonio can't pay, Shylock starts sharpening his knife, and Portia comes to the rescue.)
Setting the play in modern Las Vegas – complete with slot machines, showgirls and an Elvis impersonator – is a bit silly, but it can be defended as a telling parallel to the money-driven venture capitalist world of Shakespeare's Venice.
Even the downmarket good-ole-boy ethos of its inhabitants gives a reality to the casual but vicious Anti-Semitism of the culture. It's way over-the-top, but you're willing to go along with it to see where it leads.
But turning Portia's Belmont into a TV game show is more problematical, because in director Gould's eyes that requires turning Susannah Fielding's Portia into an airheaded bimbo, a parody-to-the-nth-degree dumb blonde.
O.K. Let's count the ways that's wrong. By the big trial scene Portia is going to have to be the wisest, cleverest and deepest person onstage, and it's going to need a really major Legally Blonde change to get her there. (She does take off the blonde wig and tottering-high heels, but doesn't lose the Texas accent or the bimbo attitude.)
Meanwhile, what does it say about Bassanio's taste that he's chasing this dubious prize or about Antonio's situation when we realise he's in danger of dying for her?
One way of looking at Shakespeare's play is that it is built on a contrast between the male and money-driven world of Venice and the female and love-driven Belmont, with the latter helping to cure the former of some of its excesses.
But when Belmont-TV and its biggest star are far less attractive and admirable than Venice-Vegas (which is at least open in its hedonism), the play makes a lot less sense.
Shylock is defeated and Antonio's life saved, but this production ends with the survivors all evidently at a loss as to just what they've accomplished and what they're going to do now. (The final tableau, which I won't give away, is filled with unclear meanings and implications, not the least puzzling of which is the suggestion that Portia misses being just a dumb blonde.)
It is difficult to say anything about the acting in this sort of production, since everyone is clearly just doing as they were told.
I am sure Susannah Fielding would have preferred to play Portia differently but, told to do a cartoon bimbo, she does it very well. Tom-Weston-Jones's Bassanio is a hunk and no more, Scott Handy's Bassanio morose and no more. Jamie Beamish has fun, and injects some energy into his scenes, as the Elvis who turns out to be Lancelot Gobbo.
Which leaves Ian McDiarmid's Shylock, who does indeed seem to have been left alone. McDiarmid is an excellent Shylock, moving believably from dignified businessman to homicidal madman avenging all the historical indignities of his tribe.
But it's a performance that has very little to do with what's going on around him, and I suspect he would give very much the same excellent interpretation of the role in a more traditional production.
So this Merchant is a thing of bits and pieces, and works best if you just go with the overall flow and don't look too closely or ask too many questions.
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