The Merchant of Venice – June 2011

Experience: 5/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Rupert Goold

Venue: RST

Date: Monday 13th June 2011

Well, this started off on a high note, and gradually got weaker and weaker until it fizzled out. The production concept was a mix of Las Vegas casinos and a reality marriage show, but as often happens, those concepts were used until the text could no longer support them, and then just disappeared. The performances were all good, given these production choices, and as it’s still early days there may well be more to come. Rupert Goold is always willing to change things that don’t work, or to improve a performance, so we’re not too concerned that we’ve already booked to see this one again.

The set had two staircases sweeping down on either side of the stage, with a landing in between and space underneath for slot machines or an entrance way. The floor was covered in a diamond pattern of blue tiles, and there was a similar pattern in lights on the back wall above the stairs. Before the play started, there were three casino tables on the stage with lots of punters at each, waitresses brought drinks to various customers, and there was a strong beat to the (loud) music as well as some heavy-duty rhubarb going on.

The music and action continued when the auditorium lights went down, until Elvis himself rose up through one of the tables and began to sing. Viva Las Vegas was the opening number, and with two dancers helping him out, this song covered the removal of two of the gambling tables. This left the one table at which Antonio sat, largely ignoring the song and dance going on around him. The rest of the customers had joined in, though, and this was a very lively start to the play.

When Elvis left the stage, taking most of the cast with him, the remaining blackjack table was moved to the centre, and were left with the ‘salad boys’ and Antonio for the opening scene proper. One of the salads was the dealer, while the other was sitting at the opposite end of the table from Antonio, and just looked like another player. No previous relationship amongst them was indicated by this setup. The American accents used in this production certainly fitted in well with the location, but now it became clear that they were going to interfere with the clarity of the lines. The dialogue came across well for the most part, but at times I had to struggle to make out what was being said, and this was one of those times. Scott Handy as Antonio was fine all the way through, and admittedly this is an opening scene that I’ve rarely seen done well, so perhaps the accents weren’t entirely to blame.

I had heard that this production made Antonio very keen on Bassanio, and although I couldn’t be certain of this when he was talking to the salad boys, it became very clear when Bassanio himself turned up. As soon as Bassanio started talking about Portia, Antonio closed down in his body language, folding his arms, moving away from Bassanio. It hurt him a lot, but his love for the man made him offer everything he had to help him in pursuit of another love. I was a bit puzzled when Antonio gave Bassanio his credit cards at the end of the scene – if he could use these, why would he need to borrow money on the Rialto? – but it was only a minor point. I did like the change from three thousand ducats to three million dollars, as it made it easier to grasp the enormity of the sum, and of course it emphasises just how rich Portia is, later on.

The Belmont scenes appear at first to be set in a TV studio, where a reality show called Destiny is being filmed. There are signs for ‘Applause’ and ‘On Air’, two banks of TV screens to show us the camera’s viewpoint (the cameras were placed well back on the walkways), and there were glamorous hostesses as well as a sweet little girl in a bridesmaid’s dress. Portia and Nerissa were on a sofa which rose up in the middle of the stage, and they were glammed up from head to toe. Portia had a large blonde wig, white outfit and huge heels – think Paris Hilton and you won’t go far wrong. Nerissa was dark, in a blue/green outfit, and they chatted for a bit before the announcement that they were about to go on air.

As soon as they did, Nerissa became the slick interviewer, toning down her southern accent and ditzy attitude to quiz Portia about her suitors. Portia is all rich airhead at this point, also with a southern accent, and I found myself wondering how this interpretation was going to cope with the demands of the trial scene? But back to the interview. The descriptions of the lords were pretty good (no Scottish lord), and then the little girl came on at the back and handed Nerissa an envelope with the Destiny logo. This contained the news that the suitors had all left, to Portia’s relief. They went off air after the announcement that the Prince of Morocco had arrived to try for Portia’s hand.

Back in Vegas, Shylock is examining the model for his latest project – a multi-million dollar development with lots of strangely shaped buildings from the look of it. It seemed a bit over the top for a despised money-lender – if he was accepted enough into the community to be getting approval for that sort of project, he wouldn’t still be a money-lender on the Rialto, surely? Anyway, Shylock is portrayed as a silver fox, a ruthless businessman who can nevertheless be somewhat ingratiating, especially after Antonio’s outburst later, but I never felt that Patrick Stewart had nailed the American accent – it was just a bit too British underneath.

Antonio is furious about having any dealings with Shylock, and it’s one area where I felt this production did a good job, showing the their mutual antipathy. These men really loathed one another. However, Antonio is pleased with Shylock’s offer to charge no interest and set up only a ‘joke’ penalty if the bond is forfeit, and so the deal is struck.

Back in the studio, the Prince of Morocco has arrived to take his chance. The understudy took the role tonight, and he was dressed in a boxing outfit, complete with gloves, and looked like one of those paunchy, older boxers who just won’t retire. Several bananas were thrown on the stage as he entered, which Steve found quite disturbing; it’s certainly more overtly racist than I’ve seen before, and not really necessary in my view. It’s also the first time I’ve noticed that Portia uses the word “hazard” when she talks to the Prince. I’d noticed she does it when she talks to Bassanio, which could be interpreted as an attempt to point him in the right direction, but using it here suggests otherwise; it’s just an appropriate word in the circumstances.

The filming ended with some razzamatazz, and then slot machines were inserted into the gap between the stairs, and Elvis is singing again, I forget what. Turns out, the Elvis impersonator is Launcelot Gobbo, and he’s at the middle of the three slot machines with his back to us. Seated on his left is an angel, dressed in white and with little wings, representing his conscience, and on his right was a devil, dressed in red (and did she have horns?). The angel and devil turned round and spoke their own lines, and although they fitted the words together very well, I felt I’d seen much better versions of this speech. When he’s finished deliberating, the slot machines, angel and devil leave, and in this production we get to see Old Gobbo, although of course, he doesn’t see us! I don’t know why this scene was included, as I didn’t get anything from it.

It’s during this next phase of Merchant that many productions try to minimise the scene changes. Not so here, with many little snippets coming thick and fast, which lost some of the play’s momentum, as so much scenery had to be changed. Firstly, we switch to Shylock’s house, all gloomy and dull, especially compared to the glitzy casino and TV studio settings. One light bulb hangs down towards the front of the stage, and Jessica, plainly dressed, has to fetch a plain chair to be able to turn it on. She then sits on the chair, reading a book. Launcelot comes on with a massive suitcase, and they say their farewells.

The next scene has the salad boys with Lorenzo and Gratiano discussing their plans for the party/abduction later that night. During the open day yesterday, we saw a session which took us through how this scene was developed in rehearsal, with the help of six or seven volunteers. They all had acting experience of some kind, and after a short while, with some coaching from Lisa Blair, this production’s assistant director, their delivery improved and they started to add some actions as well. With prompting, they came up with the idea of the four of them sitting in a car, playing music, and drinking. The car was represented by four chairs. As things developed, the actual effects were added in, and the final effort was very good. We loved it, especially as we’d seen it grow from nothing, so when it came to the real thing, we were always likely to feel disappointed, and that’s what happened. The pumping music included the words “Barbara Streisand”, the salad boys were in the back and Lorenzo was driving, instead of Gratiano in yesterday’s version. Launcelot came on from the front, I think, and the car screeched to a halt when they see him. He hands over the letter, and is called back by Lorenzo so that he can take something to Jessica – from yesterday’s session I gather it’s a crucifix. The salad boys get out as well, and then Lorenzo and Gratiano drive off, with Gratiano reading the letter. With a blaring of horns, Lorenzo slams the brakes on to finish the scene. The car this time emerged from under the stage, and returned that way, of course, which should have helped to speed up the changes, but the flooring took a while to come back into place, so the next scene wasn’t as quick to start as it could have been.

I’m not sure if the scenes follow the same order as my text at this point, so I’ll go with the order of scenes in my text unless I remember otherwise. So now it’s Shylock leaving for the party, and warning Jessica to shut all the doors, etc. followed by the abduction scene. As Shylock left his house, lots of costumed folk came on stage, cavorting about and having fun, not that Shylock was interested. When Batman arrived, he turned out to be Lorenzo, and when Jessica throws off her coat to reveal her disguise, she’s done up as Robin. This was good fun, but otherwise the scene was fairly tame – all Batman costume and no knickers.

The next scene is back at Belmont, with the first televised casket choice. One problem with this staging is that if the choices are televised, everyone watching will know the correct casket after the second wrong choice, making the whole thing pointless. Anyway, three stands are wheeled on with gold, silver and lead boxes, Portia is done up in bridal gear, the little bridesmaid sits at the front of the stage, and there’s plenty of showmanship on display. When the Prince opens the gold casket, a glass cube rises up, with a skull and a scroll. When he leaves, there’s a little bit where Portia and Nerissa end the show with “The ancient saying is no heresy: Hanging and wiving goes by destiny” from Act 2 Scene 9, and then they’re off air. Portia drops the fake happiness, and makes her comment about the Prince.

The Salad boys have their conversation about Antonio on the balcony, so we’re very quickly into the next choosing scene at Belmont. This time, the Prince of Arragon is dressed like Manuel from Fawlty Towers, and the choosing is fairly straightforward, with the silver casket being placed to the front of the three this time and containing a fool’s head, as promised. There’s a reprise of the “Hanging and wiving” lines, and then the news of Bassanio’s arrival, which cheers Portia up no end.

Back to the casino, and some café tables appear for the next scene. The salad boys are having a drink and discussing Antonio’s bad luck. Shylock comes on, and chooses to sit at the other table, but comes over to theirs to deliver the famous “Hath not a Jew eyes?” speech. Unfortunately, I wasn’t impressed with the style of delivery chosen, which seemed jerky and unconvincing. I was sympathetic to Shylock overall, but this speech didn’t help. Tubal uses his phone to show Shylock a picture of the ring which Jessica has swapped for the monkey, and Shylock’s reaction was moving at last – I got a real sense of what that ring meant to him. Otherwise, the scene was uneventful.

In Belmont the studio is set up again, and Bassanio is sitting in a chair on the set for his discussion with Portia. He seems to be in love with her, judging by his words, but there was no other evidence throughout the play, so I’m at a loss to know what was intended with this portrayal. Bassanio is led off when Portia says “Away then!”, and part way through her next speech the show goes on air. When she says “Go, Hercules”, Bassanio appears at the back, dressed as Hercules, to make his choice. The lead casket is, of course, at the front this time.

They included the song, I think, and then it’s a nervous few minutes for Portia, who’s standing on the stairs to our left. Bassanio reasons things out OK, and I noticed the box wasn’t actually locked this time – he just opens it without a key. Previously the keys had been supplied by the little girl, who also led off the unsuccessful suitors from the front of the stage. This time, I don’t think the little girl was there, and by the time Bassanio has made his choice, the show is no longer referenced. The screens are blank, and there’s absolutely no sense of the world watching this private moment, which in terms of a reality show is completely unreal.

The lead box simply contains a remote control(?), which sets off a recording on the screens, of Portia reading the final scroll, so Bassanio can’t comment on Portia’s loveliness by comparing her to her picture. Her reaction to this bit was puzzling. She’s happy that Bassanio had chosen correctly, and she’s obviously recorded the speech, but she seems as surprised as Bassanio when she sees it. Perhaps it will come across more clearly when we see it again. Portia has taken off her wig and shoes, so Bassanio can see her “such as I am”. I got no sense of any reaction from him to this transformation; without her wig she’s dark-haired, and still pretty, but perhaps not what he expected.

Gratiano and Nerissa announce their wedding plans, and then Lorenzo, Jessica and Salanio arrive with the letter for Bassanio. Jessica stays on the stairs, reluctant to join in, even when Nerissa goes up to welcome her. With their arrival, Portia puts her wig on again, and is bright and cheerful. The reading of the letter brings Antonio on to speak the lines himself, then they all leave in haste without even having married, as far as I can see.

There’s a short scene where Antonio has been arrested, and is being taken away to prison, then Portia, Nerissa and Jessica come up on the sofa again in dressing gowns, having a girls’ night in, with Jessica attempting to put two slices of cucumber on her eyes. Portia appoints Lorenzo as her steward, and when Balthazar comes on he’s carrying two large bags with Portia and Nerissa’s disguises – men’s suits – which they put on before leaving.

The conversations between Launcelot and Jessica, and then with Lorenzo, were OK, and then the court scene is set up, which takes a while. The setting is now an old butcher’s warehouse, with lots of meat hooks hanging down, and strips of plastic at the back entrance. A case is placed in the front right corner of the stage, and Antonio, in a badly-fitting orange jumpsuit is led over to the case and stands there, all through the scene. It’s a nightmare bit of blocking for anyone behind him, as he doesn’t move for a long while, and then two guards are holding on to him when Shylock is about to take his pound of flesh. Frankly, they should be selling those seats as restricted view – you have been warned.

There’s also a table in the front left corner for Shylock, who puts his briefcase there, and a desk back right for the lawyers. The Duke could almost be a Mafia boss in his dress style, but then why the concern for the rule of law? Antonio and Shylock’s hatred of each other came across loud and clear, but otherwise the scene lacked the tension that’s usually generated here. Instead of tension, we got sensationalism. When the time comes for Shylock to take his pound of flesh, all pleas falling on deaf ears, they take a long time to set the process up. Antonio is suspended from one of the meat hooks, and one of the guards is pulling the rope tight behind him, while the other holds him down. Antonio’s already removed his jumpsuit to the waist, and stands there, chest heaving with nerves, while Shylock takes an age to prepare, even stroking Antonio’s flesh with the knife, toying with him. It all goes on for far too long, while Portia, near the top of the stairs on our left, seemed to get the answer once, but too early, so had to go round again, looking anxious, glancing at the bond, then finally stopping Shylock just as the knife is about to go into Antonio’s flesh. How she got the answer I’ve no idea, because although she’s not a complete air-head, she’s not the super-smart bunny we’ve known from other productions.

Once he’s thwarted in his plan, Shylock naturally wants the money instead, but this Portia takes a gloating pleasure in denying him even that. Antonio has collapsed on the suitcase, understandably, and only stirs when Shylock is told about the seriousness of his situation. There’s definite malice in insisting that Shylock convert to Christianity, and Shylock’s reaction is unusual; he grins, flips his yarmulke off and acts all happy before asking to leave. At least, that’s what I could make out from behind the man – hopefully I’ll get a better view next time.

I couldn’t see why Bassanio changed his mind about the ring this time, although Antonio seems to want Bassanio to choose him over Portia. Portia and Nerissa are on the balcony when Gratiano catches up with them, and then we’re back to Belmont for the final scene. Lorenzo and Jessica rise up on the sofa and have their little teasing section – hard to tell what’s going on there – and then Stephanie turns up with news that Portia is coming back. When she arrives with Nerissa, I didn’t hear any lines about hiding their absence from Bassanio, and it all seemed very rushed. The ring section was weak due to this interpretation, and got very little in the way of laughs. When Portia greets Antonio, they sit on the sofa, and when Bassanio joins them, he makes contact with Antonio behind Portia’s back. I wasn’t absolutely sure that she spotted this, but her manner changes afterwards, so I guess she did. Nerissa ends up on the left walkway, with Gratiano saying the final line to her, and then we get the final Elvis song, Are You Lonesome Tonight?  During this, Antonio sits on the sofa on his own, Bassanio has gone all moody and wanders around on his own, Portia has taken off her wig and is dancing with it alone in the middle of the stage, crying, and everyone seems to be completely miserable. I have no idea why this is going on; maybe I’ll get a better idea from a different perspective.

I felt the visual aspects of this production were very good, and some of the ideas were interesting, but most either fell by the wayside or just didn’t work for me. None of the characters was likeable, and although I felt some sympathy for Shylock, on the whole I just wasn’t engaged with the play at all. The accents may have contributed a lot to this; Gratiano in particular had a very unpleasant voice which put me off this normally entertaining character entirely. There was no real tension in the trial scene, and the racism was too blatant and crude for my understanding of this play – Shakespeare’s not that simplistic. If they can improve the delivery of the lines considerably, I may find this an OK production, but otherwise it’ll have to remain a less than successful Merchant.

One thought that occurred to me the next day was that the Princes of Morocco and Arragon represent Muslim and Catholic suitors. Not sure if that was an intention of this production, but I’m grateful to it for helping me to this insight.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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