The Merchant Of Venice – September 2011

6/10

By: William Shakespeare

Directed by: Rupert Goold

Venue: RST

Date: Wednesday 14th September 2001

Amazingly enough, seeing this for the third time, and from a different angle, gave us a completely different experience of the production. We enjoyed it much more, got a lot more from the performances, and while the last scene still just didn’t work from our perspective, our overall feeling was that this is a decent production. I would have rated it 8/10 but for the down-beat ending.

I don’t think there were many changes that we noticed, although I can correct some of my earlier descriptions and add some extra detail. We arrived much earlier, and found that Antonio was on his own in the casino to begin with, apart from the dealer, that is. The others gradually joined in, and Steve noticed Bassanio trying to borrow money off other characters. The music started gently – Luck Be A Lady Tonight when we arrived (good choice) – and gradually the rhythm picked up, the cast started moving faster, repeating their actions, and then Elvis rose again and launched into Viva Las Vegas to get us going. There may have been something wrong with his microphone tonight, as we couldn’t hear the words clearly and his voice didn’t carry as much as I remember from before.

Two things about the conversation in the lift tonight – one is that I was distracted by all the details in the performances of the other lift users, which meant I lost some of the Salad boys’ dialogue, but I did notice that at the end of the lift conversation, the janitor ends up in the basement, and is called over by the little girl. As it’s the same actor playing the Prince of Arragon, it appeared that the janitor has simply been seconded to play a fake suitor for the purposes of the ‘reality’ show. If so, that means the program is being filmed in the basement of the casino, so why on earth does Bassanio need three million dollars to travel a few floors in the lift? Apparently that bit of casting was something they decided in rehearsal, so again the cast knew far more about the production than they could get across in performance. I’ve found that a lot with this production – chats with the actors have been more interesting and enjoyable than the performances themselves, a bit arse over tip if you ask me.

The trapeze work was in the right front corner tonight, and happened as Antonio was hiding out in the audience, when Shylock and an officer were coming to arrest him. This was the place last time, I remember. I suppose it could mean that Antonio was simply watching one of the shows the casino puts on, but then why was Shylock wandering around with a torch? I certainly didn’t get that impression last time we saw it, so I guess this is another of those things that makes sense to the cast, but never mind the audience.

The janitor also featured in the trial scene. When Shylock is making his point about the slaves which the Christians own, he brings the janitor, possibly an illegal immigrant from Mexico, over, which certainly makes a relevant contemporary point. Shylock reads a prepared speech for his first lines about not explaining his decision to pursue Antonio through the court system, and this didn’t ring true – the rhythm was all wrong. When Antonio is being prepared for the knife, the janitor is given the rope to hold, and the police officer puts a pad in Antonio’s mouth to help him avoid screaming.

I was paying more attention to Portia this time when she entered for the trial scene, and I saw that she was having difficulty opening her briefcase – what was that all about? I could see past Antonio to where she stood on the staircase, but I still have no idea about her sudden rescue of Antonio. Did she know in advance? Did she come up with the ‘no blood’ solution herself? We may never know, and frankly, I no longer care. We deliberately chose to ignore the setting and weird production choices tonight, and that’s the main reason why we enjoyed the performance much more, up to the final scene. From Scott Handy’s session at Living Shakespeare the next morning, we learned that the final scene had been much too slow – in his view, they hadn’t done it well the previous night. That may be true, but he also informed us that this ending had been decided by Rupert Goold from the outset, which helped to explain for me why it felt out of step with the rest of the production.

I did notice that several aspects of this version had been toned down from the original, suggesting that the cast may be reclaiming the play in beneficial ways. For example, instead of a strange movement and grimacing smile from Patrick Stewart after judgement is given against Shylock, he kept his response much more low-key, suggesting that although Shylock is hurt by the experience, he’ll bounce back in the future, and may well carry on plotting against Antonio. The changes between scenes were tighter, and little bits were being dropped, such as the near-accident and squealing brakes at the end of the car scene.  Between these improvements and our change in attitude, it’s no surprise we had a better time last night. Even so, I’m glad we won’t be seeing this one again.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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