Friday, 19 December 2014

The Merchant of Venice ★★★★ All that glitters marmite

Just look at the posters and banners of the production. It’s a neat photograph of a golden hamburger. What does this have to do with Shakespeare 16th century play The Merchant of Venice? Zany as it may seem but artistic director Rupert Goold has rolled the dice and partook in some risky business by - somehow – merging Shakespeare’s Elizabethan script with the money gambling world of Las Vegas. Shakespeare purists and traditionalists may want to look away as this modern interpretation is more of a Goold special minus the literary flourishes and peculiarities of Shakespeare’s highly contentious play, known for its antisemitism.
Pop-culture and American accents take to The Almeida Theatre’s stage more so than Shakespeare’s own words. If you don’t like the idea of an Elvis impersonator interjecting - at random- Elvis’ best love ballads, or new hip club numbers or US rapper Jay-Z for that matter, then forget it! There are shades of Crime TV drama, The Sopranos at work too.  However, if you like modern experimentalism and something extremely different, then you’re in for an evening of entertainment and tacky American fun.
Despite exposing a tacky golden stage it’s quite accurate of real Las Vegas, which is, in actual fact, very filthy and cheap-looking. (Trust me! I've been there.) Tom Scutt’s set design is authentic and no stranger to Sin City’s superficial nature. He designs it as the fruit machine and commercial ridden television screens of Belmont Casino where Portia (think American sweet heart meets Alicia Silverstone from Clueless with a Southern twang), righteously played by Susannah Fielding, has to marry a suitor on the request of her father. The suitor who chooses the right casket out of three: gold, silver or lead, wins her hand in marriage, all of which is televised on a TV game show. Our Prince of Morocco is a boxer flaunted by Vinta Morgan who impressively manages to shadow box and speak in iambic pentameter at the same time. The buffoon Prince of Aragon (Vincenzo Nicoli) is freshly delivered from Mexico and can do many things whilst dancing his feet away to dodge bullets. He shouts ‘Viva España’ with a thick South American accent and welcomes a pantomime boo from the audience.  Yet it is her true love Bassanio (Tom Weston-Jones) who chooses the right casket but gets himself into a financial pickle with the supposed Jewish anti-hero Shylock (Ian McDiarmid), which puts his good friend Antonio’s (Scott Handy) life at risk, potentially losing  ‘a pound of flesh', literally!
McDiarmid, the former artistic director of the Almeida who is known for his role as Palpatine in the Star Wars films, portrays Shylock as a casino owner with a strong Germanized accent. Although a controversial and villainous character in Shakespeare’s play, notably for his devotion to Judaism, Goold’s production paints religion as a hypocrite - dialogue is brutally cut throat but doesn't make the production, on the whole, antisemitic. In the final scenes where Shylock is forced to convert to Christianity, there’s both a sense of cruelty from the Christian side and vulnerability from Shylock. The pity we first felt for the Christian Antonio, who’s inches away from losing his own flesh, is transferred to Shylock who is spat at and physically abused, which is an uncomfortable sight, repeatedly depicted in most productions of Shakespeare’s play. Yet despite bringing in an interesting version of Shylock, McDiarmid unfortunately leaves out the gravitas of Shylock famous 'hath a Jew not eyes' monologue, which is a distinctive part of the debate surrounding his character.
Nonetheless, the production has cast members who are a sight for sore eyes such as Rebecca Brewer as Stephanie, Emily Plumtree as Nerissa and Merry Holden as Conscience. Anthony Welsh as Gratiano and Raphael Sowole as Salerio play honourably on stage as well as Tim Steed as Solanio. And Jamie Beamish as Gobbo, aka Elvis, does his best at singing until his heart’s content.
Brewer and Fielding serve justice on a silver platter as they disguise themselves as male lawyers in the final act and together save Antonio’s life. Particularly with Fielding, she takes care in reinforcing Portia’s dissatisfaction with her own marriage dilemma and acknowledges fake from reality. As much as her life is showcased on television, she takes off her wig and stilettos to reveal her inner self to her true love.
There’s a lot to admire in Goold’s novel production, but it may be deemed as marmite for some – not everyone will like it. 

Showing until the 14th February 2015. Click here to purchase tickets Photos courtesy of Almeida Theatre.