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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at Royal Shakespeare Theatre


  Patrick Stewart/ Ph: Ellie Kurttz

You expect the unexpected with a Rupert Goold production. So entering the Royal Shakespeare Theatre’s beautifully renovated auditorium in Stratford-upon-Avon for a production of The Merchant of Venice to find that designer Tom Scutt has converted the place into a Las Vegas casino will not be that much of a shock – especially to those who saw the director’s Elizabethan and 21st century Romeo and Juliet. But because Goold here takes the idea so far, the initial surprise grows into astonishment. 
While a dapper man who turns out to be Antonio (Scott Handy) sits coolly playing blackjack, all about him are the gaudy trappings of Sin City. Leggy waitresses ply high-stakes and small-town gamblers with drinks, and a hip-gyrating, jumpsuit-wearing Elvis impersonator – who later turns out to be Shylock’s Jew-hating servant Launcelot Gobbo (Jamie Beamish) – further sets the deliciously trashy mood with some pretty good renditions of the King’s classics. This is not what Stratford’s regulars have come to expect. 
Meanwhile in normally peaceful Belmont, Portia is not the serene heiress we are used to, but a ditzy, dumb blonde of the prom-queen variety. All heels and hair, she is later transformed into the legal eagle who saves Antonio's flesh, much like the character that apparently inspired Susannah Fielding’s terrific performance, the lead role in Legally Blonde
Against all this frippery, Patrick Stewart’s steely Shylock stands out as the main note of sobriety in a town that, had it been around for long enough, could have been twinned with Gomorrah. The play’s centuries-old anti-Semitism is given a modern twist when Aidan Kelly’s Mafia-like wise-guy Solanio greets Shylock with a hiss of Holocaust gas. It appears to go entirely unnoticed by Shylock until Stewart's Shylock sends it back to Solanio with the question, ”If you poison ussssssss, do we not die?” 
Counting the first time Stewart spoke Shakespeare’s words at the age of 12 when he read out Shylock’s “Hath a Jew not eyes” speech to his classmates, this is the fourth time the actor has taken on the role. His latest version is a silvery and smooth operator, seething with resentment at his treatment by the Christians around him. At first he wears no skullcap or shawl. Only later, at home – a sanctuary from the vulgarity of the city – is he seen wearing the garb of the orthodox Jew. This detail, however, is strangely unconvincing as part of a portrait of a man who is earlier established as a casino owner – a man who helps sustain the culture that he now apparently abhors. 
It is one of the few false notes in a night that takes high-stakes risks with the play’s conventions. In this setting of gangsters, hustlers and molls, Shakespeare’s language could have been written by Damon Runyon; his characters – but for Shylock – might have stepped out of Guys and Dolls
And yet, despite the cavorting Elvis, the TV game show and the occasional updated reference – Antonio’s debt of 3,000 ducats is inflated to three million dollars – there is never the sense here that this astonishing production's first loyalty is to anything other than the play. Well, Goold perhaps – though certainly not, in his final scheduled role for the RSC before returning to film, Stewart's Shylock, which is very fine though not as commanding as his Macbeth, which Goold also directed. 
Purists hoping for a classic Merchant will be disappointed as well as agog at the audacity with which the play's conventions are changed. But this is one Merchant of Vegas they will never forget.

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