The Merchant of Venice
by William Shakespeare
Directed by Rupert Goold
Almeida Theatre, Islington, London
Saturday 31st January 2015, 14.30
Ian McDiarmid as Shylock
Susannah Fielding as Portia
Emily Plumtree as Nerissa, Portia’s maid
Scott Handy as Antonio, a merchant
Tom Weston-Jones as Bassiano, friend to Antonio
Caroline Martin as Jessica, Shylock’s daughter
Finlay Robertson as Lorenzo, Jessica’s loved one
Jamie Beamish as Lancelot Gobbo, Shylock’s servant
Vinta Morgan as Prince of Morocco / Jailer
Vincenzo Nicoli as Prince of Aragon / Duke of Venice
Jonathan Tafler as Tubal / Jailer
Anthony Welsh as Gratiano
Tim Steed as Solanio
Raphael Sowolw as Salerio
Rebecca Brewer Stephanie + several roles
Merry Holden as Cosncience / Several roles
This is the year of The Merchant of Venice. The Almeida revives Rupert Goold’s 2011 RSC Production. The RSC have a new one coming. The Globe has a new one coming. These major productions come in threes, and last year it was Much Ado About Nothing (Old Vic, Globe, RSC). The Almeida revival carries over many of the same 2011 cast, but replaces Patrick Stewart as Shylock with Ian McDiarmid.
My first London major Shakespeare experience was a school trip to The Merchant of Venice at the Old Vic. It got me into concepts in a very minor way, because they cast Lancelot Gobbo as the actor who played the Cockney tea-leaf (thief) in the TV advertising campaign “Watch out there’s a thief about.” He did Lancelot Gobbo in the same Jack-the-lad cheerful loveable Cockney style and voice and it was a shock to hear Shakespeare with a strong accent for me then studying it for O-levels.
The “real” Venetian Hotel on Las Vegas.
This production is high concept modern dress version indeed. It’s a concept that works, Compare Headlong’s Hollywood film set Midsummer Night’s Dream or Grandage’s rock festival take on the same play, or the RSC’s Glastonbury Festival As You Like It. It’s even more so. We’re at the Rialto Casino in Las Vegas. Have you seen the Venetian Hotel, the largest in Las Vegas? It’s just like this, and in the non-casino bits has a Bridge of Signs, Doge’s palace, gondolas, . This has an Elvis impersonator for Lancelot Gobbo, an African-American boxer for the Prince of Morocco, a Cirque du Soleil interlude with dancers with hula hoops, fruit machines, dice, constant TV relays on the walls … all it lacks is the luxury cars as ultimate fruit machine prizes in the middle. It has a great improvised ten minute pre-show with high-heeled waitresses, gangsters, a hooker, gamblers, a croupier, a Hunter S. Thompson lookalike in his Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas shirt, a scrawny redneck, cool black dudes and to top all that explodes into action with the Elvis impersonator singing “Viva Las Vegas.”
Accents? they’re all American. Unlike “accent blind” productions where actors do their natural accent, this one is considered, and I heartily approve. Accent is part of an actor’s armoury. Portia and Nerissa are strongly Texas … so a “pin” is something you write with. The Prince of Morocco is jive-talking African American. The Prince of Aragon is joke Spanish. Solanio is redneck Southern cracker. All have a distinct purpose. Only Shylock lacks an American accent and he’s Vienna / Central European. American always works fine with Shakespeare. This goes further, and all the accent work casts new light on old lines.
The programme has an interview with Rupert Goold and Ian McDiarmid::
Goold: In Shakespeare the good bits take care of themselves. But some things Shakespeare does are very opaque to us now, or he wrote them so quickly, they’re slightly bumpy in places. Also I can’t believe he kept his company together without giving them a bit of free rein.
McDiarmid: I was talking with Jamie Beamish, who’s playing Lancelot. That’s very much an engagement with the audience part. And he thought the original actor must have felt he could do anything – that some of it ws written down, some of it wasn’t. I think we need to keep that freedom in mind,
Mark Rylance has said much the same. It’s obviously right, and obvious that in so many plays the fool’s part relies on puns or obscure contemporary references that don’t work nowadays. In this Jamie Beamish’s Elvis impersonator (with the best lip curl I’ve seen) is really free, and to great effect.
Nerissa (Emily Plumtree, left) and Portia (Susannah Fielding)
The wildest part of the concept is Portia and Nerissa. Portia is played by Susannah Fielding (see All New People review here), and this will be the funniest Portia and Nerissa you will ever see. The Texas accent helps, but so do cheerleader costumes with rah-rah skirts (and all the subsequent changes) too. They play them kind of airheaded, and find SO many modern American phrasings in lines. So. i.e. So period, as in Valley Girl style is a prime example. Susannah Fielding’s role as Kim in All New People had a similarity, probably because she looks so perfect for it.
Then the big concept is to switch the whole silver, gold and lead boxes suitors theme to a TV dating show, called Destiny. I’m not going to crosscheck, but the word destiny appears half a dozen times in their speeches, and is always emphasized so it rings out as the show’s title. The recitation of the box inscriptions is done by Portia, Nerissa and the two female assistants in unison.
The Prince of Morocco (Vinta Morgan) and Portia
It’s a dating game, on TV, building up to a live final. The Prince of Morocco’s boxer role reminds us of all those boxers hired to meet and greet in Las Vegas, which is also where the matches take place. All done in strong hiphop tones. Then the Prince of Aragon is funny Spanish … where you say Torre Molinos Paella to show that’s the language you’re speaking. Gracias, Chiquita as he says. The final sees Portia and Bassanio dressed up by the TV show as Hercules and Hesione (referred to in the text … though I had not heard of Hesione). The final is directly after the interval with the TV floor manager putting everyone in their places. We both felt that the Bassanio box scene (the lead casket) was the only scene in the play that fell flat. Bassanio in Greek warrior garb got the initial funny costume laugh, but Portia had been in various white dresses before so the wispy white Greek frock didn’t leap out as “classical dressing up.” Maybe they played it to suggest Bassanio wasn’t entirely passionate about Portia, being more inclined to Antonio. I don’t know. But it was a rare flat spot.
Susannah Fielding dresses in a suit as a very slight Balthasar the lawyer, and she and Nerissa look frail and nervous as they come on, trying to play men, then Portia opens her briefcase and takes out a pen with a girlie fluffy pink top and has to conceal it fast. First-rate comedy acting right through. She has to change to pathos though, because the end of the play has her dancing on one high heel shoe as (the real) Elvis intones Are You Lonesome Tonight (with the spoken “All the world’s a stage” recitation). This is because she’s realized that Bassanio and Antonio are more than just good friends in a platonic sense, as every review points out. That was most obvious in the trial scene, though I think they failed to point it right before her sad ending dance.
Solanio, Salerio and Antonio (right)
There’s a quiz question that can be used to show the strength of word association over logic. You have people who know Shakespeare reasonably well, and you do rapid fire questions. You get to “Who was the Merchant of Venice?” and even people who’ve taught the play will blurt out “Shylock.” Of course that’s wrong, it’s Antonio. This is a great Antonio by Scott Handy. I picked him out as Antonio even in the pre-scene, sitting quietly at the craps table. Plain suit. Collarless shirt. Nearly motionless. It’s studied, steadied, sad, closeted too in his love for Bassanio. His terror in the trial scene is palpable.
The major question. I rate The Merchant of Venice as among my favourites. It’s probably a decade since I last saw it on stage, though this year will make up for that. We’ve already booked for the RSC and Globe. I agree that it’s NOT an anti-Semitic play, but a play about anti-Semitism. Anthony Holden’s must-read programme essay points out that Marlowe’s Jew of Malta (also at the RSC this season) was revived frequently, sponsored by the Earl of Essex to fuel anti-Semitism. It’s five years older than The Merchant of Venice. Holden also points out that Shakespeare’s father was convicted of usury, moneylending for 25% interest.
Ian McDiarmid as Shylock early in the play
How the anti-Semitic strain is handled is crucial then. The Christians behave cruelly too. Ian McDiarmid’s Shylock has a Viennese European immigrant accent … much more acceptable than a Fagin East End Jewish accent. This is also the accent of Sigmund Freud. A German Jewish accent though reminds us of the Holocaust and that this is the week of the liberation of Auschwitz. So we are always on difficult ground. Shylock starts off as a businessman in a suit in his office. Then he moves to dinner jacket. Tubal, his friend, has a skull cap. Shylock doesn’t. At the end of the first half, Shylock removes his wig. A wig is a token way of keeping your head covered before God, without letting anyone know it. In the second part, he has a skull cap, and has changed into a black suit with white shirt buttoned at the top but no tie. Not quite Wailing Wall Hassidic (no long coat or hat) but strongly suggestive. So a marked switch to stereotypical costume. He sharpens his knife with gusto. Antonio, strung up, stripped to the waist in Guantanamo orange overalls is quivering horribly from head to foot. Shylock gets spat on while the spitters take pictures of him being spat upon on their iPhones. The portrayal of Portia is the balance. She twists her mouth and sounds like a spiteful little racist in a lynch mob at first. She looks and sounds racist, vengeful and plays with him in a spiteful way. So the Christians behave badly. But they don’t pussyfoot around what’s on the page at all … Shylock does his vengeful worst while looking and sounding stereotypically Jewish. He is reviled and forced to convert. However, his persecutors come of as overbearing, racist and vile too.
The racism test is how you would feel sitting next to a Jewish friend in the audience. The friends I might go with know enough about Shakespeare and life to see both sides, but if you change it to say a class of thirty schoolkids from one school, with say just three Jewish kids among them (like most classes when I was a kid in Bournemouth)? I wouldn’t be comfortable. But would I be comfortable with any version in that situation?
The songs … I love modern songs in classic plays. They didn’t stick to Elvis. Lancelot Gobbo gets to sing Roy Orbison’s Crying (quietly) too. A killer laugh moment is when the three girls – Nerissa, Portia and Jessica are sitting on a sofa in dressing gowns, doing nails etc and listening to Taylor Swift. My companion, being female and sensitive to these issues, thought the fact that Jessica was leg-waxing with strips was a Jewish reference too. I was flabbergasted, but she said Jewish girls would be more likely to have darker hairs to remove and was offended. I’ll add that otherwise Jessica in long skirt, dowdy colours, apparently unmade-up is a major contrast to Portia and Nerissa. She looks a bit nerdy, and her clothing looks like strict Orthodox family too.
Portia and Nerissa
I thought there were a couple of other possible songs they missed. One major addition is that Lancelot Gobbo’s shall I / shan’t I speech is enlivened by having two very sexy helpers – a devil and an angel – as he explores his conscience, with them taking his lines. James Darren’s Conscience (1962) would have been perfect. As would Elvis’s Devil in Disguise … but they stuck to the best known Elvis: Viva Las Vegas, Love Me Tender, All Shook Up, It’s Now or Never Blue Suede Shoe, Are You Lonesome Tonight.
The production is laden with memorable bits. A conversation in a mimed lift with other people getting in and out. A conversation in a mimed car with the two guys in the back doing a rap song: yes, this is the only Shakespeare play you’ll hear “motherfucker” in.
The downbeat ending, brilliantly done by Susannah Fielding, was still, in my opinion, an error of judgment. They could have taken it exactly as they did, then taken the first bows and initial applause THEN broken into an all cast cheery dance. As it was I thought they squashed what should have been an instant standing ovation.
The Almeida is a circa 320 seat intimate theatre with excellent sightlines, pleasant public areas, good coffee and even good loos. Our tickets at £18 in row D at the side were less than a third of what we paid (£60) at the Wanamaker Playhouse two weeks ago in a similar position to the stage. There’s a cast of eighteen too, elaborate sets and costumes. This is serious bargain theatre (which is why it’s hard to get seats). OK, parking’s hard if you’re from out of London, but you’re also 200 yards from Ottolenghi’s Islington branch for some of the best food in London. We thought the cast deserved far more applause than they got from this matinee audience. There’s are reasons for that, though the downbeat ending is the strongest one. The double folding seats prevent you from leaping to your feet at the end (as I wanted to) because you have to have your seat sharing person leap simultaneously. Also they could have easily milked a third encore but put “Suspicious Minds” on the PA instead, possibly preserving the maximum break before the evening show.
THE MERCHANT OF VENICE ON THIS BLOG:
The Merchant of Venice, The Globe, London April 2015