THE MERCHANT OF VENICE
Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
Opened 19 May, 2011
**

Rupert Goold made and then confirmed his reputation as a visionary director with radical high-concept stagings of Shakespeare starring Patrick Stewart: first The Tempest for the RSC, then Macbeth at Chichester and in the West End. Some of his more recent productions had seemed comparatively subdued on the reimagination front, and occasionally downright muddled. But with Stewart as his Shylock in Stratford, he is back to a full complement of bells and whistles, though alas not of coherence.
    
Capitalism is a form of gambling, so Venice becomes Vegas. As we enter, the stage is a gaudy gaming palace, with Antonio off to one side evidently on a losing streak. Just to underline matters, an Elvis lookalike sings “Viva Las Vegas”. Stewart’s Shylock is a venture capitalist, first seen practising golf putts with his cane; Portia’s moated grange becomes a neighbouring complex, the Belmont. That’s all great as far as it goes, but it goes far too far in the staging and not nearly far enough in narrative logic. It doesn’t, for instance, extend to the plot strand about Portia’s suitors and the riddle of the three chests, so that becomes a reality TV show instead. It doesn’t extend to the climactic trial, which takes place in an empty meat warehouse. It does, God help us, extend to Elvis turning out to be the clown character Launcelot Gobbo, to “translations” of the money in the play so that the 3000 ducats lent by Shylock become three million dollars (although other amounts aren’t converted to scale), and to the dictum that the cast should play in (inevitably assorted) American accents. Why? They weren’t made to play the Stalinist Macbeth in either Russian or Scots.
    
There are plenty of delightful individual wheezes: Lorenzo steals Jessica away under cover of a fancy dress ball, so when he turns up as Batman she is disguised not simply as a boy but as the Boy Wonder, Robin. But the collection of moments and couple of big ideas simply aren’t integrated thoroughly enough. The actual playing of the trial is strong, with Stewart's Shylock inflexible yet far from inhuman, and the reality-series idea pays off in the final scene when the ring trick goes horribly wrong and the artificiality and limits of these contests are exquisitely illustrated… but it’s too late. This is one-third of a magnificent production and another two hours which are mostly great fun but signify nothing.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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