The Merchant of Venice at the Almeida
Director Rupert Goold’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s debatably most controversial play is set in a Vegas casino, where themes of money, greed and skewed morals are perfectly backlit. Littered with myriad American accents and colourful racial stereotypes, it also acknowledges the play’s most divisive theme of all: that of racism.
The Merchant of Venice courts criticism for being highly anti-Semitic, though its defenders are as great in number as its detractors. Its Jewish character, Shylock, is the archetypal stereotype of a miserly, mean Jew, despised by his goodly Christian neighbours. It would be remiss of any production not to make a comment on how we can interpret him in the modern day. Goold’s The Merchant of Venice takes the idea of the stereotype and runs with it. Set alongside a ridiculously flamboyant Spaniard, ditzy LA airheads and slack-jawed Texans, the money-loving Shylock is just another laughable trope. The biggest laughs of the show come from these caricatures – and how better to dispel a prejudice than to hold it up for ridicule? As Bassanio asserts: “The world is still deceived with ornament.” We’re no good at looking beyond the surface.
The production embraces its theme wholeheartedly. The elaborate set showcases all the faux luxury of the gold-painted casino. Characters drink, laugh and gamble around the auditorium as the audience files in. To kick off the show, Viva Las Vegas is sung by an Elvis impersonator (side-character Launcelot Gobbo), who punctuates the action throughout with crooning and leg shaking.
Beautiful Portia and handmaiden Nerissa treat the business of finding Portia’s suitor as a game show. All toothy TV smiles and Deal or No Deal style boxes, the pair gets the audience up to speed on the inferior suitors in the manner of celebrity gossip. Goold has made an interesting decision about Portia, deconstructing her sweet, young facade as the play goes on. She is shown as another victim of the stereotype. Susannah Fielding’s portrayal of the character is the stand-out performance, imbued with warmth and humour.
Much playfulness is engendered through Shakespeare’s language. Bassanio’s “shall you pleasure me?”, asked of Shylock, and Portia’s mention of “the rack” imply double entendre. There are some wonderful moments of gravity too, such as the heavy silence after Shylock’s foreshadowing “wrong me not”.
Perhaps most interestingly of all, listening to Shakespeare in various American accents does not jar the way you might expect. In fact, it enriches and rejuvenates the text.
Photo: Ellie Kurttz
The Merchant of Venice is on at Almeida Theatre until 14th February 2015, for further information or to book visit here.