Merchant of Venice
Royal Shakespeare Company
June 28, 2011, 7:15pm
Before the show began, the woman next to me (a British schoolteacher) leaned over and said, “We came because we heard it was controversial.” Her husband smiled dutifully.
Rupert Goold’s Merchant of Venice is set in a raucous Las Vegas, complete with card tables, bad suits, and gaudy lights. Launcelot Gobbo (Jamie Beamish) opens the show as an Elvis impersonator, complete with song and, uh-huh!, dance. Antonio (Scott Handy) and Bassanio (Richard Riddell) are what you’d expect: the one a glum businessman, the other a polished youth with just enough hair gel to suggest rakishness. It’s clear that Antonio loves Bassanio, and clear that Antonio is dismayed by Bassanio’s plans to gamble on a marriage with Portia (Susannah Fielding). Standard Merchant fare, plus Las Vegas.
Portia and Nerissa (Emily Plumtree), however, are anything but typical. The game of the three caskets is transformed into a game show, Destiny, hidden in the basement of one of Las Vegas’s buildings. Contestants appear in trumped up, false personas: Morocco the boxer, Arragon the matador, Bassanio as Hercules himself. Portia and Nerissa are also layers of ornament: while their actual accents are Southern (and thickly ridiculous), they put on the airs of dumb blondes during the show, which is projected on TV screens above the stage. I his climactic choice of the lead casket, Bassanio rails against ornament: his choice shuts down the show, and Portia reveals self-consciously strips away her own ornaments: the accent, the platform shoes, the blonde wig, even the false confidence. She’s still daddy’s little girl, even after his death.
I haven’t mentioned Patrick Stewart’s Shylock yet. Stewart reprises this role by emphasizing Shylock’s jewishness, blessing his daughter in Hebrew, contrasting his cool, businessman’s exterior with his reactionary religious intolerance, even wearing a kippah and a tallit during the courtroom scene, which is held in some dark, sanitized torture room of a prison. He is Patrick Stewart (with a full head of hair!) and both his intensity and his emotional control are astounding.
The prison scene, however, is where Stewart and Handy really shine. Merchant is a play of subtext: Antonio’s love for Bassanio, Portia’s desire to master Bassanio’s will, Shylock’s balance between humanity and stereotype. In this production, all the subtext becomes embodied during this scene, speaking out through gestures and glances rather than words. When Bassanio arrives, Antonio has been stripped to the waist in preparation for the knife: the two men embrace, and Bassanio grips Antonio’s flesh like a lover. Portia comes not because she wants to save Bassanio’s friend but because she intuits the nature of Antonio and Bassanio’s relationship: she comes to observe, and saving Antonio is merely improvisation. Shylock holds the knife to Antonio’s breast, and Antonio quakes with such fear that Shylock complains to the police officer holding him still: it is only later in the scene, when Shylock puts a gun to Antonio’s head and Antonio does not flinch, that Shylock can say, happily, “I am content.”
Everyone gets what they want in this scene, and it destroys them. Shylock makes Antonio fear death and ultimately face it, becoming the monster Antonio so reviled and feared: Shylock’s only way to touch him; Antonio faces death for Bassanio’s sake, testifying to his love, but Portia trumps that testimony by saving him, saving her husband’s lover. And Portia sees what she came to see. The play does not end with jokes and happy reunions. It ends with the unadorned truth, the bare lead that Bassanio hazarded for. Everything is out: Antonio’s love, Gratiano’s pettiness, Jessica’s self-hatred, Portia’s self-fabrications. Life unadorned: it’s a controversial thing.