IN THE ALMEIDA THEATRE: Where Venice meets Vegas and Glamour meets Reality.
Rupert Goold’s modern adaptation of The Merchant of Venice elegantly captures the tragic and comic elements of Shakespeare’s masterful original whilst neatly using the thematic strands of greed, jealousy and courtship to problematise modern capitalist society. Boldly set in the glitzy facade of show business, Goold's play brings money laundering and racial injustice to the forefront of a media-centred world. This fatal combination of a consumer-driven society and a dark underbelly of extreme greed and systematic injustice works to illuminate and indeed critique our modern society that thirsts for capital gain and remains premised on similar social prejudices to those of Shakespearean times.
The beautifully designed set, resembling that of a Venetian river market, with the false Rialto bridge amid a large glimmering backdrop, carefully masks the dark gravitas of the play with an initial light and vibrant atmosphere. It is the energy and dynamism of the play, set within this breakneck euphoria of Las Vegas, that allows for a wry modernisation of the Shakespearean humour. Lorenzo and Jessica elope disguised as Batman and Robin, whilst an Elvis impersonator pulls off the role of Launcelot Gobbo without it being excessively crass. Yet beyond the comedic and almost farcical buffoonery, the production has evident depth. The actors convey a conscious duality to their characters which crucially overrides the glimmering set to reveal a collection of nuanced characters who are deeply flawed and deeply troubled by their surroundings and circumstances. Subtlety and complexity gleam paradoxically in the face of the all that glitters and all that is gold. This in itself is a strong message to take from Goold's adaptation as it holds a mirror to the falsity that stems from modern-age capitalism.
Susannah Fielding is particularly outstanding with her radical and comical reinterpretation of Portia. Initially a blonde-wigged, sickeningly false and foolish Southern princess, Portia is by the end of the play, an intelligent brunette, though deeply insecure as she dances brokenly to “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” Though the accent needed improving, Ian McDiarmid’s Shylock was powerful in extracting the villainous yet victimised aspects of Shakespeare’s iconic protagonist. McDiarmid provokes complete enmity in the audience as he traces the pound of Antonio’s flesh with seething hatred, yet also incites complete pity as he slides off the stage yelping and crying like an injured dog at the play's end. Caught between extremes but played with remarkable attention to detail, McDiarmid and Fielding maintain the credibility and emotional clarity of Shakespeare’s characters whilst also making them applicable, relevant and original in their own right. Overall Goold's production made for an insightful but entertaining watch which leaves one questioning the human condition and its predisposition towards acquisition, hatred and appearances. An essential watch for a modern age.