Cooper’s London

Theatre:

Merchant of Vegas

I have to admit to having had a very good time at the new RSC production of The Merchant of Venice directed by the ineffable Rupert Goold. The adrenalin that coursed through my system, generated by the intense rage and mystification I felt, was most invigorating; and I was further stimulated by thoughts of what to shout at this director and how to re-do the whole production. Also, it did actually provoke a strong desire to re-read the play, so the experience was not entirely negative. Dark clouds with silver linings and all that!

I admired Patrick Stewart’s Shylock. I thought he created a real and plausible character, and acted with remarkable restraint and intelligence. I would love to see him do it in a real production of the play some day. I was also particularly taken with Susannah Fielding’s Portia, Caroline Martin’s Jessica and Richard Riddell’s Bassanio. Indeed, the entire cast executed what was required of them with the usual commitment and skill you would expect at the RSC. My problem was entirely with “the given” imposed on the play by Goold: that The Merchant of Venice was set in some fantasy city–contemporary Las Vegas, or some patronizing and, I guess, satirical, version of Hollywood’s view of Las Vegas.

Also that everything had some contemporary popular art equivalent to help us “get it”?– so that Portia is to be seen as Reese Witherspoon in Legally Blonde; she is now a living Barbie Doll who is nevertheless smart and good at being a lawyer seems to be the message. Does the director really think that he has to drag in the shows we watch on television to give his audience some sort of recognition points? And does he really think the audience could not understand the characters or situations, fairytale elements and all, if just presented directly? Oh, and what the hell is the equivalence supposed to be between Vegas and Venice? My impression is that Goold thinks that we are so bereft of intelligence and the ability to listen to Shakespeare’s poetry that he needs to coat everything with references to current cities, movies and TV shows to impose context.

In this production Patrick Stewart is present as Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof. (Though Patrick Stewart does Tevye dancing at the close of the first half after his daughter has absconded rather movingly, it has to be said.) The wooing of Portia via the three riddling boxes is now a reality show with all the noise and tackiness of the X-Factor.

But time and again I kept thinking how completely inept the conceit was. For starters, Venice in Shakespeare’s time was a society of bankers and power brokers players on the international world stage, not some sort of overblown Disney World–and though, as we all know, bankers are playing for slots these days, they are also playing for power. Given the current world situation, setting the play in a Lehmann Brothers bank, on the London stock exchange or even in Brussels in the EU headquarters seemed to me a better bet.

The Merchant of Venice also portrays a society riddled with class barriers and snobbery that simply are not relevant to contemporary Las Vegas. Shakespeare’s Venice is a society of men who who practiced the same sort of male bonding as the old Etonians who run a coalition government in the UK, say, and who are just as unaware of their prejudices; they simply exclude everyone who is not of their ilk. And the anti-Semitism of the play certainly does not work set in today’s LA (unless it has changed a lot since last I looked). If Goold had to find a more contemporary equivalent., could he not have set it in Berlin in 1932 or 1933 just as the Nazis were on the rise? Or–hey–Venice itself in Mussolini’s time?

To me it seems that this production more than any in a long time points out the dangers of attempting to give an old play contemporary relevance by loading it with arbitrary images and parallels that the director thinks audience will more easily relate to–-all without thinking through the implications of the update. And without considering whether the audience needs or wants such glosses. It also must be a hell of a disappointment to any American tourists who have come to Stratford hoping to see how the play is performed on home ground; especially as everyone on the stage (to make the Las Vegas trope more real) is speaking with an American accent.

I have tried. but have not yet succeeded in seeing a Rupert Goold production that does not irritate me by its irrelevant inventiveness and glitz, and by how much of it is beside the point. Enron was just one example: except that, in London, its glitz and inventiveness actually hid the weakness of a badly written play (New York, apparently, got it!) That said, I think the man is without a doubt intelligent, creative and full of ebullient ideas that could be fun. Also, certainly, in this Merchant there are moments in the first half and a long patch in the second where he actually lets the play get through to him, the actors and the audience. I cannot gainsay he is successful or that he seems to give a lot of people pleasure with his approach. His Romeo and Juliet that opened the rebuilt Stratford theatre was a hit with audiences. But this new Emperor of the theatre world has yet to find his clothes. For now, at least he’s wearing some nifty underwear!

Part Two of this production was better. It got calmer. The trial scene was engaging, and I became emotionally interested in the characters at last. But then, in the last ten minutes of the final scene back in Belmont, Goold threw it all away: the action completely undercut the actual text and its romantic ending and added arbitrary fake-tragic business for Portia that was cringe-making in its conceptual ineptitude (though well-executed by Susannah Fielding). But once again, the audience seemed to love it. Maybe I am once again turning into a curmudgeon (or maybe it was really doing something showy that was actually phoney and not what the play is about at that point?) I ask myself: what would Shakespeare do?

I have no objection to updating if it illuminates ideas or draws new perceptions from the text. I have seen productions of this play set among the bankers in Victorian England (Jonathan Miller’s wonderful National Theatre production with Laurence Olivier and Joan Plowright, which is available on DVD) and some that explored the Jewishness of Shylock vs. the Gentiles very clearly and explicitly (Trevor Nunn, Miller again); but Goold’s is not among them.

To my mind, this Merchant of Vegas was inconsistent in every way both with reference to the actual play and also within its own “given”. Frankly, I also think it is patronizing to Shakespeare and ultimately unfair to the audience, which is being patronzied along with the author. And I felt sorry for the actors, who clearly have much more subtlety, nuance and interpretive skill to offer.

I rate this one not in stars but in toilet seats and I give it two. But I also live in hope that Rupert Goold will one day soon harness his undoubted talent and energy so that it serves a play instead of just using the play as a launching pad for his own visions.

Still if you want to see a crumby Las Vegas floor-show with a little Shakespeare thrown in, that includes a second-rate Elvis impersonator and some show girls strutting their stuff to liven things up, this is the one to get tickets for. Go for the floor-show and a few good moments in passing and also for a really good Trial Scene and you will not be disappointed.

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