Star rating – 9/10
When I heard that the RSC were doing a modern day version of this Shakespeare classic, that I had loved so much as a school girl, set in Las Vegas and featuring Elvis Presley hits – well my heart sank. I ruefully thought that even the presence of the esteemed Patrick Stewart might not be able to save it. But I could not have been more wrong. This production is thrilling, majestic, mesmerising, and a whole bundle of fun (at least in the first half anyway). I was even contemplating giving my first perfect 10 of the year, until a couple of imperfections crept in towards the end, but more of my nitpicking later.
The parallels between the money grabbing, material wealth worshipping societies that are modem Las Vegas and medieval Venice are totally, blindingly obvious when you think about it. But it has taken this brilliant and brave interpretation by director Rupert Goold to point them out. You can’t take your eyes off this action for a single moment, from the very first scene when Elvis, aka Shylock’s servant Launcelot Gobbo, announces himself to the audience in his white rhinestoned Vegas number. Jamie Beamish takes this rare opportunity by the scruff of the neck and shines throughout.
The setting of Portia’s predicament in terms of finding a suitor to meet the terms of her late father’s will as a TV game show called Destiny is just pure genius. Susannah Fielding is truly outstanding as Portia, with her high heels, Dolly Parton hair, and accent to match.
The staging is outstanding and complex. But little touches like the sensation of being in a lift via a little light and movement trickery is spellbinding. And yes, of course, Patrick Stewart is outstanding as the Jewish moneylender. But he is definitely not, as some uncouth critics have suggested, in another play to his fellow thespians. He mingles with the mayhem with consummate ease. And yes, the theme of the play is a little unsettling, anti Semitic as it could be, but this ‘Merchant’ is making a clear and serious point against prejudice of any kind.
The second half of the play, with its court room drama and trademark Shakespearian cross dressing and disguise, is a different animal altogether. Nonetheless it is compelling and gruesome as the pound of flesh debacle is enacted.
And the nitpicks? Well Portia did fluff her lines rather obviously towards the end. And the end scene felt a bit awkward after the grace and beauty of the rest of the play. But enough of this. If you doubt whether the Bard and the King make good bedfellows – then let me assure you that they absolutely do – in this riotous, intelligent, genius of a play in the beautiful new RSC surroundings in sunny Stratford. Go check it out.