The Merchant of Venice

Almeida Theatre, London

Whether you like them or not, Rupert Goold productions are never dull. By now a Goold production is stamped with his own distinctive tropes of originality, invention and a positive sense of pleasure in over-turning sacred cows.

Thus it is with his re-staged Merchant of Venice, originally seen in Stratford three years ago when Shylock was played by Patrick Stewart, his place taken this time by Ian McDiarmid, the Almeida’s former AD with Jonathan Kent.

McDiarmid is a performer pickled in a certain iconoclastic mannerism, a style which fits well with Goold’s extravaganza approach to one of Shakespeare’s most controversial, challenging plays. An unusually broadminded introduction by the Jewish Chronicle’s John Nathan in the Merchant programme doesn’t recoil from the play’s troubling anti-semitic portrayal but argues how important it is not to censor its staging.

Having said that, I find myself deeply at odds with Goold’s general approach. Much is made in the programme of the appropriateness of choosing Las Vegas as the production’s locus, a modern parallel to Shakespeare’s early 17th century Venice with both in the business of risk and money-making adventurism. Broad doesn’t come near it in terms of the performing style adopted.

What you can say is the conceit is consistent, played to the hilt from the bump and grind opening to Jamie Beamish’s clownish lookalike Elvis Lancelet Gobbo’s regular launch into Elvis hits. To add to the gaiety, Portia and Nerissa are portrayed as Barbie-doll type presenters in a reality show called Destiny.

Enjoyable enough if you like your humour garish and Goold’s reading often feels fresh whilst also disquieting. He’s more successful for my money, apart from making the rampant anti-semitism so explicit, in underling the play’s other themes about stereotyping and the deceptiveness of appearance.

In Vegas-land, all is fake. Shylock’s sleek grey haircut is revealed as dramatically false as Portia’s goldilocks. A strange ambiguity too settles over the second half with a finale of loneliness, each character locked in their own worlds, Bassanio’s homo-erotic tie to Antonio hinted at and Portia a figure of painful disenchantment, wig whirling, tottering, broken.

A problematic production for a problematic, broken-backed play.

First published in Reviewsgate in Dec 2014