The Merchant Of Venice – August 2011

4/10

By: William Shakespeare

Directed by: Rupert Goold

Venue: RST

Date: Monday 22nd August 2011

There were some improvements to our experience this time compared to June’s performance, but on the whole I found it rather dreary to have to sit through such an uninspiring production again.

On the plus side, we were viewing from a different angle, and in the stalls, so I caught some of the expressions that I hadn’t been able to make out before. We had also heard two very interesting talks today from Susannah Fielding who played Portia and Scott Handy who played Antonio, and although I still don’t agree with many of the choices this production makes, it did at least give me some points of interest to look out for during the show. Another bonus was that we could make out the dialogue much better this time, a common experience amongst those who had seen the production before, while those who were seeing it for the first time still found it hard to make out what the characters were saying. Familiarity is clearly important with this piece.

On the down side, I still didn’t connect with or care about any of the characters enough to want to watch the story unfold again. The sheer negativity of the production is unrealistic in my view, and while I accept that the choices made can be supported to some extent by the text, there’s so much in the play that isn’t being addressed that the performance seems superficial and distorted. However, it is leading to a lot of discussions, which is always a good thing.

Most of the differences I noticed tonight came in the second half, which I found the better of the two, but I’ll start with the first half. I noticed some extra business with the suitors; in particular, Portia and Nerissa recited the inscriptions along with the two unsuccessful suitors, and for the Prince of Arragon they were also waving guns around. The Prince of Arragon was less Manuel-ish this time around, but his accent was so over the top that I couldn’t make out much of his dialogue at all.

I found the scene with Launcelot Gobbo, the angel and the devil easier to follow this time round. I suspect they may have moved the slot machines further forward to improve visibility, and the angel and devil seemed to be taking longer over their lines, fondling poor Gobbo as much as they could, so it worked better for me (he didn’t seem to be enjoying it at all!). The scene in the car seemed shorter also, though I couldn’t say why.

The short chat between the salad boys took place in a lift, depicted by means of a square light shining down, a ‘ting’ as the lift door opened and closed, and all the occupants lifting up on their toes each time it started down. At the end, only the janitor was left, and he got out in the basement – this was just before the second casket scene. This was the same staging as before, from what I can remember. The first half ended after Shylock’s conversation with Tubal, with Shylock doing a little dance to show his suffering, anger and desire for revenge.

The second half started with Bassanio’s casket scene, and the reason I ‘enjoyed’ the second half more was that I could see much more from Bassanio in both this and the trial scene. I spent most of the first half thinking that Richard Riddell had a very inexpressive face, but the second half proved that wrong. He managed to portray a man who could be in love with Portia given half a chance, but who then realises how much Antonio means to him, and destroys his marriage before it’s begun. I still found Portia’s emotional uncertainty at the point when she should be happiest a bit inexplicable. Susannah Fielding had talked about it earlier, but I reckon it’s one of those things that may work in an actor’s head, and yet doesn’t necessarily come across in performance. Her grimacing continued in fine style to the end of the play, and I could almost sympathise with Bassanio in the final scene, as he realises he’s landed himself with a complete nut job.

Now that I could hear more of the dialogue, I was also aware of how much this interpretation of Portia is at odds with her speech. How exactly does a ditzy blond airhead know about young Alcides and the Dardanian wives? And there were other lines that just didn’t fit with this heart-led southern gal persona. But at least Bassanio’s thought processes as he faced the three caskets were good and clear – hooray – and I was very conscious of his comments about ‘snaky golden locks’ being wigs, and not natural at all. When Portia did un-wig herself (and perhaps that speech gave her the confidence to do it?) there was a wry smile on Bassanio’s face, as if he recognised the falseness, and didn’t mind it. At this point, it looked like he was willing to be a good husband and might even end up in love with Portia, if she could let go of her protective image and show him another, stronger side to her personality.

This time, I noticed that Nerissa had lost the high heels and was wearing sensible trainers when she and Gratiano joined the two on stage. After Bassanio has read the letter from Antonio, and the situation is explained, Portia asks how much is owed. Her reaction when she’s told that it’s three million dollars is wonderful – petty cash as far as she’s concerned. We’ve realised before that she’s very, very rich, but this rewording really does bring it home in today’s terms. The reaction from the others to her response was also good – jaws drop, and Gratiano looks at Nerissa and wordlessly asks if Portia’s really that wealthy? Nerissa nods, and Gratiano is stunned. Thirty-six million dollars is a drop in the ocean to this woman (‘Double six million, and then treble that’). I also noted the line ‘Since you are dear bought, I will love you dear’, and heard a reference to it again later.

The next bit was the same as last time, I reckon, but we could see it better. Antonio snuck on stage and dropped into the seat in the first row, far side of the left walkway, just across from us. The lights were low, and Shylock came on with a torch, searching for him. When he found him, he called on the LVPD officer to arrest Antonio – I spent my time peering at the badge on the officer’s uniform to check they’d used the LVPD name, but I couldn’t see it clearly. Too much CSI, I’m afraid. The short dialogue between Antonio and Salarino which is part of this scene was hived off, and shown later.

The girls’ night in was much as before, though I was able to see the expressions more clearly, and Portia’s patronising attitude to Jessica came across very strongly. I saw Jessica as more grown up this time, unhappy with some aspects of her situation, but able to handle them better than Portia will be later. Nerissa still looked shocked and unhappy at the idea of ‘prayer and contemplation’ – how will she get her hair and nails done?

The postponed scene between Antonio and Salarino may have been inserted here, as the trial scene isn’t far away. Antonio is now in the fetching orange jumpsuit so favoured by American prisons, and is sitting on a stool near the front of the stage, while Salarino is up on the balcony. They talk on the phone, and when they finish, Antonio puts the phone down and is led away by the guard.

Now I don’t remember exactly when the trapeze bit happened, but it was around here somewhere. A trapeze was lowered down near the front left corner of the stage, and one of the actors, in a fetching blue leotard as I recall, wiggled about on it a bit. Then the trapeze was taken back up and the next scene started. What was all that about?

The scene with Launcelot, Jessica and Lorenzo is swiftly followed by the trial scene. This time, Antonio wasn’t standing in the same place all the time, but did have to be there for a considerable period. I was conscious of Scott Handy’s comment earlier on about Antonio’s mind being ready for death but his body wanting to stay alive, and that certainly came across tonight. His body was quivering and trembling, and it was hard to keep watching, but equally as hard to look away. Portia’s dawning realisation of the relationship between the two men was clear, but it did take away from her performance as a lawyer – too much going on. The rest of the scene was much as before, and I still felt there was no way that Portia got the answer she did, despite Susannah’s efforts. Gratiano’s exclamations in praise of Balthazar were powerful and worked really well tonight, so on the whole I was happier with this trial scene.

One thing I remember that I can’t find in the text is Bassanio saying to Antonio something along the lines of Portia’s words ‘Since you are dear bought, I will love you dear’. Since it appears to be an insertion, I’m not sure exactly when it happened, but I’m confident it was in the trial scene.

The final act was similar to before, but this time the touching between Antonio and Bassanio was up front – across Portia’s lap – so no mistaking the meaning there. Everyone’s as miserable as last time, there’s still a lot of wasted humour, and we left the theatre glad to be free at last. Will we put up with it for a third time? Wait and see.

One interesting point that came out of a later talk by Dr Erica Sheen is the sheer number of references to flesh and blood in the text. I hadn’t realised this before – god bless these academics, poring over a hot text day and night to give us these insights – and I certainly wasn’t aware of it from this production, but it’s something to look out for in the future.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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