THE MERCHANT OF VENICE Almeida, N1

THE MERCHANT OF VEGAS RIDES AGAIN 

 

Three years ago Rupert Goold reimagined Venice for the RSC, taking ‘casino capitalism’ literally, setting it amid decadent gilt arches and roulette-tables with Lancelot Gobbo as an Elvis impersonator. The casket choice became a TV reality game with Portia as a pouting Barbie whose transformation into a lawyer was pure Legally Blonde. So now in charge of the Almeida, how could he resist bringing it back as his Christmas spectacular, partly recast but glitzy as ever? It’s a Gooldian pound of flesh: Shakespeare as savage rom-com with Elvis numbers, Antonio strung up on a butcher’s hook in Guantanamo orange, and plenty of lurex and leg.

 

 
Most is as per Stratford – including the carnival costume jokes with Gratiano as Munch’s scream and Lorenzo as Batman eloping with Jessica as Robin. But in the smaller theatre both better and worse things emerge. Scott Handy’s morose Antonio droops with such intimate despair throughout that it becomes ever clearer that his devotion to Tom Weston-Jones’ pretty Bassanio is so homoerotic that once the ring-nonsense is over at the end, Portia has every reason to look depressed in her weird hobbling finale dance: there’s a sense that we are moving towards a Design for Living situation.

 

 
As before, Susannah Fielding’s Portia is the most artfully nuanced and difficult performance. She is required to simper, wriggle and pout like Daddy’s southern princess during the garish reality-show sections, become more real but still pouting and spoilt amid her girlfriends, and then convince in the courtroom transformation. But even before that, one of the most strikingly and honestly directed moments in the play comes when Bassanio chooses the lead casket, and instead of a blaring and flashing neon triumph the TV show lights dim and the “unlessoned girl” steps off her stilettos and ditches the big-hair blonde wig to avow serious love. Fielding does it superbly.

 

 
By then it is about time for some reality. The comedy accents began to get me down; standard American, jive-talk, Elvis gobbling from Gobbo, a hillbilly gambler, squeaky girlishness and of course the two failed suitors. Vinta Morgan’s Prince of Morocco is a preening Mohammed Ali in gold lurex shorts, and Vincenzo Nicoli does a Fawlty-Towers-Manuel in a luminous flamenco shirt as the Prince of Aragon. Funny, but recklessly chucking away the poetry. More troubling on the accent front is Ian McDiarmid’s Shylock. He is a marvellous actor, and Goold pulls no punches about his treatment by the contemptuous antisemitic Christians, or the brutality of the trial scene. But earlier, the decision to adopt an extreme caricatured Jewish voice works against the subtleties of his delivery and attitudes, ruining many of the most telling lines. We never get a sense of Shylock as a successful banking figure with real power: rather he emits a jerky cartoonish whimsy. Only in the trial itself is McDiarmid given a chance to project an emotion both real and disturbing.

 

 

 

But when he does it reminds me – if I may wander off-message for a moment – of something I found once in the letters of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, aka Lewis Carroll. In 1880 he wrote in distress to Ellen Terry, having seen her play Portia to Irving’s Shylock. He begged her to ask the actor-manager to cut Antonio’s insistence in Act V that the defeated Shylock convert to Christianity. “It is a sentiment entirely horrible and revolting” cries Dodgson, an Anglican deacon.“The idea of forcing a man to abjure his religion may be simply horrible..a needless outrage on religious feeling…in the very fullness of our joy at the triumph of right, we see him as victim of a cruelty a thousand times worse than his own”.

 

 

This memory came back to me during the end of the trial scene, as McDiarmid’s Shylock crawls broken away, and a cleaner wanders on to the empty stage and throws the Jew’s discarded black coat and kippah into a binbag. That memory’s surfacing is what, for me, won this eccentric, often gimmicky production its fourth star.

 

 

box office 020 7359 4404 http://www.almeida.co.uk

to 14 Feb

rating: four     4 Meece Rating

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