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The Merchant of Venice

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The Merchant of Venice
Tim Steed as Solanio, Raphael Sowole as Salerio and Scott Handy as Antonio (Photo: Ellie Kurtz)
In 2011 Rupert Goold mounted a production of The Merchant of Venice for the RSC at Stratford upon Avon with Patrick Stewart as Shylock. The Merchant is a difficult play because of its inherent anti-semitism. I've seen Antonio and Bassanio represented as Hitler Youth but we are always conflicted by the mixed feelings we have about Shylock. We sympathise with his speech on humanity, "Hath a Jew not eyes?" and "If you prick us do we not bleed?" we feel sorrow for his loss of his daughter Jessica, despise the way he is treated but condemn his total insistence on having his bond rather than its monetary value several times over.

This Merchant of Venice opens with a most unusual set. An Elvis impersonator Lancelot Gobbo (Jamie Beamish) is singing "Viva Las Vegas"and all around are gaming machines, bars, people partying and showgirl dancers. In the middle of them and yet apart from then sits the dolorous merchant Antonio (Scott Handy) looking increasingly desperate and despondent. Bassanio (Tom Weston-Jones) asks for Antonio's financial support in order to seek a rich woman as his wife.

The switch to Belmont is to a television studio where Portia (Susannah Fielding) and Nerissa (Emily Plumtree) are part of a reality dating show called "Destiny" where the game is to find a husband for Portia from a selection of suitors. Wearing frou frou skirts, high heels, frilly socks and big hair, the two girls discuss, in Tennessee accents, Portia's father's casket choice method of selecting a husband.

We return to Vegas where Shylock (Ian McDiamid) is a successful financier well suited and wigged unlike the rag trader so often portrayed. Antonio is at the door on the video entry system. The deal is made, agreed to, with its bizarre default clause of a pound of flesh.

Back to "Destiny" Round One, the Prince of Morocco (Vinta Morgan) a champion boxer full of body self confidence and he gets his hubristic downfall in choosing the gold casket. Round Two is the Prince of Aragon (Vincenzo Nicoll) dressed in a bossa nova satin shirt with colourful frills ready for carnival. At this point I am really enjoying the refreshing switch from Venice to Vegas with its blue arches with star decorations and the Elvis rendering of "the Battle Hymn of the Republic"and the tv game show.

After the interval, "Destiny" Round Three sees the arrival of Bassanio in the costume of a Roman soldier. (Is this really what he spent Antonio's money on?) As Bassanio wins Portia she discards the Dolly Parton wig and with it some of the bimbo image. Then we have the exchange of rings and off to Vegas to the court to defend Antonio, leaving Jessica (Caroline Martin) and Lorenzo (Finlay Robertson) in charge at Belmont. Antonio comes up through a floor trap and wearing the prison issue orange jump suit looks like a broken man. There are sirens and smoke and high drama as the court room scene begins.

Although Portia manages the court well, she acts in a very un advocate professional way with childish insults and crowing directed towards Shylock. The blood defence seems a last minute thought. Shylock has cast off his business suit and wig and is dressed like an orthodox Jew. I found Ian McDiamid very moving as Shylock who not only loses the case but everything is taken from him, even his religion.

Finally the games with the rings. Nerissa and Portia set up Bassanio and Gratiano (Anthony Welsh) for having parted with theirs and then, as we might expect, a different ending. The dance from Portia with one high heeled shoe as she reflects on what she has won when her husband shows more interest in Antonio. Was Bassanio just after her money or was the winning of the chase paramount to the outcome? As she spins around in turmoil and unhappiness Elvis is singing, "Are You Lonesome Tonight?"

The dumbing down of Portia doesn't work for me but the whole production is stimulating and original and I was reminded of the impact of Baz Luhrmans's ground breaking Romeo and Juliet. What a pleasure to see as a wronged Shylock, Ian McDiarmid, back at the Almeida 13 years after he and Jonathan Kent gave up their joint artistic directorship there.

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The Merchant of Venice
Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Rupert Goold

Starring Ian McDiarmid, Susannah Fielding, Tom Weston Jones, Jamie Beamish, Scott Handy
With: Rebecca Brewer, Merry Holden, Caroline Martin, Vinta Morgan, Vincenzo nicoli, Emily Plumtree, Finlay Robertson, Raphael Sowole, Tim steed, Jonathan Taller, Anthony Welsh
Designer: Tom Scutt
Lighting: Rick Fisher
Sound: Gregory Clarke
Music: Adam Cork
Choreography: Scott Ambler
Video: Nina Dunn, Jack Henry James
Musical Associate and Orchestrations: Alex Baranowski
Running time: Two hours 50 minutes with an interval
Box Office 020 7359 4404
Booking to 14th February 2015
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 15th December 2014 performance at the Almeida Theatre, Upper Street, London N1 1TA (Tube: The Angel)
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