In the programme, the RSC lists all the Shakespeare plays – the entire canon – it plans to produce in the next six years, placing a tick by each one produced so far. There's an element of dull routine about this project that the new Merchant expresses perfectly: it's very hard to see what lies behind Polly Findlay's disappointing revival.
One impulse might have been to do something that looks nothing like an RSC production, not a bad idea, and she certainly achieves that. And goes further. Shylock is played by Makram J Khoury, an actor who is both Palestinian and Israeli.
He's a solid, forceful performer, with no tricks and no anger. He's spat in the face a couple of times and bears the humiliation with a patient shrug. When stripped of his assets and condemned to Christianity, he leaves the courtroom on a dying fall. We get none of the histrionic baptismal rites forced on Jonathan Pryce's superb Shylock at the Globe this summer.
Findlay and her German designer Johannes Schutz create a Venice of a shimmering wall of mirrors and a giant ball on a pendulum which swings to and fro throughout, though not hypnotically. Her German costume designer Anette Guther provides Shylock with a boring blue cardigan and Patsy Ferran's Portia with two little frocks of unmitigated hideousness, one red and creased, the other splurged with large polka dots.
Ferran justly won the Critics Circle award for best newcomer last year after sparkling performances as a maid in Blithe Spirit and Jim Hawkins in Findlay's NT Treasure Island. She's an impish, lively Portia, improvising her get-out-of-jail argument about the pound of flesh with a wickedly original vein of humour. And she neatly sidesteps the priggish side of the character.
What's missing is any sort of emotional connection between the characters, except for the blatant passion harboured by Jamie Ballard's nerve-wracked Antonio for Jacob Fortune-Lloyd's hunky Bassanio. There's some sort of larky friendship going on between Portia and Nadia Albina's Nerissa, but you'd never guess that Scarlett Brookes's lumpen Jessica was Shylock's daughter.
Ferran apart, it's a distinctly average company, but anything, I suppose, to get one more tick in the programme. The caskets descend from the flies like household ornaments. There's a bit of ensemble murmuring behind the quality of mercy speech, and then the beautiful Belmont scene ("On such a night as this…") is badly botched by that well-worn cliche of filling the stage with burning candles, one by one, as a deliberate visual distraction.
Four years ago, Rupert Goold gave the RSC an electrifying "Merchant of Vegas" that he recycled last year for the Almeida. It was wild and wacky, but also full of thought, passion, brave ideas and a design concept that worked brilliantly with the text. The company should never have let it go. And now it has been seriously outstripped by Pryce and co by the Thames.