I will admit to having my doubts about Rupert Goold's vision for The Merchant of Venice as rumours started coming out about a Las Vegas setting, a Rock and Roll soundtrack and the on-stage presence of superheroes. Within minutes of entering the theatre, my concerns were dispelled and three hours of incredibly well-thought out theatre swept me along to a really original and shocking denouement.
Yes, this production is set in Vegas – a city of money, sleaze and excess. The show explodes into life with an Elvis impersonator and showgirls leading the company in "Viva Las Vegas"! I will refrain from spoiling too many of the details, as the joy of this production is the way Goold has taken something so familiar and made it work in a new, original, entertaining and thought-provoking way.
There will be those who turn their noses up at the prospect of the Royal Shakespeare Company delivering the text with American accents. However I have always found a synergy between the natural rhythms of American speech and those found in Shakespeare and this really does pay dividends. Meanings are clarified and characterisation amplified yet the language is preserved and honoured.
When you have an actor of the calibre and reputation of Patrick Stewart in the role of Shylock, it would be easy to imagine that he will dominate the production. Whilst he gives a very nuanced and powerful interpretation of the role, he is very much part of the ensemble – this generosity benefits the production as a whole. The star of the evening is the astonishing Portia of Susannah Fielding. It is hard to capture how she enriches the role with layers I never thought possible – but here Portia is someone who has been playing games all her life only to discover that winning does not always bring the rewards you might expect. Outstanding.
Other characters also shine through with a new-found intensity. When the tiny role of Balthasar nearly earns a round of applause for a single line – you know that there is strength in depth on display. If I had to pick out a couple of names from the cast list, I would have to say that Howard Charles (Gratiano) and Jamie Beamish (Launcelot Gobbo) are clearly names to watch as this ensemble progresses.
Yes, I would have liked a bit more detail in the relationship between Antonio and Bassanio – which was not as clearly defined as it might have been. Similarly there is scope for more clarity with the interaction between Portia and Bassanio. However the fault is probably that both partnerships are somewhat underwritten in the text but there is certainly more than can be explored.
Goold and his creative team have delivered a brilliant piece of theatre – something I never expected to be able to say. I am thrilled that my pre-conceptions were blown away by something that truly is audacious and brilliant.