Saturday, 4 June 2011

In truth I know not why I am so sad (actually I do)

Question: what play by Shakespeare has as its opening scene an Elvis impersonator singing Viva Las Vegas?

What do you mean, you don't know? It's obvious isn't it? The Merchant of Venice! Because this play is about risk, which could be equated with gambling; and gambling happens in Las Vegas, where there is a miniature mock-up of Venice. You see it all makes perfect sense.

At least it does to Rupert Goold, whose new production in the newly refurbished theatre at Stratford has such a blue chip investment as Patrick Stewart's Shylock that he thinks he can do any old thing on stage and get away with it. And to some extent he can. Stewart and Scott Handy, who plays Antonio, do it pretty straight (Handy was Malcolm to Stewart's Macbeth in Goold's Chichester production, which was later filmed for TV).

Elvis turned out to be Lancelot Gobbo, who broke into song on many occasions, though it was unnerving to have the real thing twice on tape because the actor was no vocal match for the King. So a Mississippian servant but Antonio's hangers-on seem to be mainly Chicago gangsters. And Portia and Nerissa are Texan bimbos presenting a TV game show called Destiny in which contestants have to choose the right casket to win the prize of Portia as wife.

We did at least get Shakespeare's text (somewhat abbreviated) between show-stopping numbers, unlike the ghastly Knee High version of Cymbeline at the Swan a few years ago, which began with a transvestite Mrs Mop showing us her holiday photos from the Canaries.

Some of it worked. The trial scene is practically director-proof. But at the very end, in Belmont, when all has been revealed about the lawyers' disguises, Goold chooses to have an interminable coda in which Portia totters and swivels on one high-heeled shoe in a spotlight. Signifying what, pray?

The audience left very subdued, as I think you are supposed to at the end of Merchant, but not because you have endured that meaningless and embarrassing little display. You should be thinking about the enforced conversion of Shylock, about revenge, and perhaps about why Venetians Jews were moneylenders who charged interest.

There were many young people in the audience having a good time. And the Merchant is a comedy. But it isn't a farce. And I hate the idea - which lies behind Horrible Histories and their ilk - that in order to make something gripping to children it has to be in some way OTT, either gross or hilarious. So that's why I'm sad.

No comments:

Post a Comment