Review: The Merchant of Venice, Almeida
Published in the Financial Times, 26.12.2014
The Merchant of Vegas: it has a certain ring to it. Like Shakespeare’s Venice, then the epicentre of global trade, Las Vegas is defined by money. Rupert Goold’s setting of the play in the US city makes immediate sense: the moment Ian McDiarmid’s Shylock offers Scott Handy’s Antonio a loan with a pound of flesh as indemnity, you see that transaction for what it really is: a bet; sport.
However, Vegas is more than that — or rather less. Its palm trees are plastic, every Elvis is fake. Portia (Susannah Fielding) becomes the prize of a “Bachelorette”-style game show, called Destiny. Pick a casket; win a wife. It’s a culture of instant, unearned success, and Portia — dolled up in a blonde wig, speaking in a babyish Texan gurgle — plays the pliable ingénue for the cameras.
The anti-Semitism here seems surface as well: a way of attacking a man for his enviable wealth, rather than religious or racial hatred. Las Vegans all worship money anyway. McDiarmid’s Shylock doesn’t dress Jewish at first but he does speak it: a soft Viennese purr that comes, tellingly, from within. Only when teaching this superficial society a lesson in the courtroom, insisting on his pound of flesh, does he put on his kippah.
There, McDiarmid (pictured) becomes both sympathetic and monstrous. His blood thirst is born of morality but it tips too far. He draws out his repayment plan — sharpening the knife on his shoe, marking a square to slice off — with all the sadistic relish of Reservoir Dogs. Fielding’s Portia is equally over-righteous: hostage to the rules of her game show for so long, now she force-feeds the law to others.
Goold strikes just the right balance with this problematic play. Early on, though, it all seems as superficial as its version of Vegas. Goold and designer Tom Scutt give us a thesis, not a real world, and it’s only in the court scene, when reality bites, that this Merchant truly grips.
Strong support comes from Handy’s earnest Antonio, Anthony Welsh’s gangsta Gratiano and Finlay Robertson’s preppy Lorenzo, who pays to pass for a playboy. Viva.
Photograph: Ellie Kurttz