Shakespeare-athon: The manic Merchant of Venice
The opening to my trio of Shakespeare plays was an avant-garde Rupert Goold production of The Merchant of Venice. And it was certainly a spectacle.
It's set in Las Vegas complete with an Elvis-impersonator, slot machines and game-show vignettes. The female leads Portia (Susannah Fielding) and Nerissa (Emily Plumtree) have American accents from the deep south, wear their hair bouffant, their eye-lashes long and heels high. The American accents are more mainstream through the rest of the cast aside from one of Portia's suitors who is Mexican.
What I gleaned from the story is that the rich Portia has been left three boxes from which her suitors have to choose one - if they discover her portrait inside they win her hand in marriage. Bassanio (Richard Riddell) fancies Portia but needs money in order to be a suitor and calls upon his good friend Antonio (Scott Handy) for help.
Antonio is having cash-flow problems with resources tied up in various trading deals which have yet to come to fruition, so he offers to use his good credit to borrow the money for Bassanio. He goes to Jewish money-lender Shylock (Patrick Stewart) who agrees to lend him the money, the bond being not interest but a pound of Antonio's flesh. (Get the impression Shylock is just a bit peeved with Antonio).
Of course Antonio defaults on the loan and Shylock demands his pound of flesh. Bassanio is distraught and Portia secretly runs to his friend's aid.
I'm not going to lie, the final scene where Portia dances with her blond wig in her hand wearing just one stilletoed shoe confused the hell out of me and it was only down to my friend Jen's explanation (she's more familiar with the story) that I eventually got it's meaning.
There is some brilliance such as the way the Elvis actey-likey weaved effortlessly into the story and the box-choosing turned into a game-show complete with TV screens showing the action live. I also loved Launcelot Gobbo's (Jamie Beamish) 'should I, shouldn't I' monologue played out with an angel and devil presenting the two sides of the argument.
But, for all the brouhaha I missed the fact that Portia is struggling with her identity, Bassanio doesn't really love her and there are dollops of homosexual undertones between him and Antonio. I also didn't get why Shylock is quite so peeved with Antonio and why he so stubbornly sticks to the terms of the bond, despite being offered twice the amount he lent in repayment. Indeed with everything going on it's hard to recall much about the more sober Shylock scenes.
Admittedly the second half is a little less showey and more coherent as a consequence. It certainly won Jen over, having been unconvinced at half time.
It was certainly a memorably play for both the right and wrong reasons and I'd like to give it another go armed with hindsight and Jen's more detailed interpretation. If it comes to London as part of the RSC's season at the Roundhouse we'll be there no doubt.
I'm not a purist when it comes to Shakespeare, far from and I'm going to give it four stars for spectacle and bravery but it only just gets four stars.
The Merchant of Venice runs in rep at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre Stratford until September 26.
Mr W is joined in the BBC's Richard II (currently filming) by Patrick Stewart who is playing John of Gaunt.