What’s a pound of flesh in a town where flesh can be bought by the dollar? What becomes of a debt on the casino floor where money flows like tap water? Those are the questions that Rupert Goold’s on the money Almeida revival of the RSC’s ‘The Merchant of Venice’ asks, with all the confidence of its strutting showgirls. Swapping the Rialto Bridge and mercantile Venice for the seedy Rialto Hotel and the bright lights of the Vegas Strip, Shakespeare is plunged into a world of glitz, glamour, kitsch and camp with a hyper economy and an Elvis impersonator – who turns out to be none other than Launcelot Gobbo (Jamie Beamish).
The stakes may be higher, with $3million replacing the original’s mere three thousand ducats, but the terrible bond is the same as ever. If Antonio cannot repay the money he owes to Shylock for the loan his friend Bassanio took out to woo Portia then a pound of flesh will be cut from his chest. The modern day setting only makes this seem more barbaric.
The casket-based contest for Portia’s hand ingeniously becomes a game show called Destiny which she and Nerissa front. Playing the pair as deceptively ditzy and glamorous all-American girls flashing long legs in tight dresses, Susannah Fielding (Portia) and Emily Plumtree (Nerissa) reap in the laughs before flaunting their wittiness in their moments off camera and, of course, in the court scenes. Susannah Fielding’s Portia is a revelation.
Behind all the glitter this production is gutsy and provocative, wrestling with the issues of the play with intelligence and originality. It’s highly conceptual but in a way that suits the play perfectly and ‘The Merchant of Venice’ emerges from the update totally reinvigorated by such deep consideration and questioning.
It’s all too easy for this play to be hijacked by its best known and most divisive character, Shylock, and Ian McDiarmid is brilliant all the way from his usuring high to his unbearable cowering low. But Goold’s production does not allow us to forget that this is ‘TheMerchant of Venice’ and not ‘The Jew of Venice’. Scott Handy’s performance as that merchant, Antonio, is near faultless, as is the slow-building relationship between Antonio and Bassanio (Tom Weston-Jones) which is delicately done and beautiful but still really hammers home the tragedy.
There are no winners at the end of a play so fraught with misery and almost all the assembled characters are looking heartbroken or lonesome by the time Elvis’ last song plays out. No winners, that is, but the audience, who really hit the jackpot with this production. There’s not a single moment that isn’t truly exciting: ‘The Merchant of Venice’ might just set your soul on fire. Viva Las Vegas!