@ Royal Shakespeare Theatre by the RSC
I saw this production on the 24th but it's taken me a few days to gather my thoughts and come to a conclusion as to what I thought. Directed by Rupert Goold, The Merchant was to be a modern retelling, similar to Baz Luhrmann's Romeo and Juliet. Set in a Las Vegas Casino, the set was striking, and different and somehow it worked. The contest for Portia's hand in marriage became a gameshow, Shylock a Casino Boss, and Launcelot Gobbo transformed into the resident Elvis impersonator. At first I was bewildered, yet by the end of the first act I was entranced.
With the opening number set to "Viva Las Vegas" with girls in feathers dancing and Elvis in his spangly white jumpsuit surrounded by tourists it was clear why Vegas was chosen - what better setting for a play about corrupt business dealings and loose religious morals? Although some of the older audience members didn't seem to appreciate the modern pop culture references scattered throughout, in our row at least hilarity ensued at the entrance of the lads in full douche-bag get up, popped collars and all, to "Barbara Streisand", and even more so at the girls pre-wedding beautification whilst bopping to Glee's rendition of "Don't Stop Believing". For me, it served to remind us of how not all that much has changed since the days of Shakespeare, we still have the same stereotyped roles and still laugh at the same sexual innuendo. It also highlighted that perhaps some things that should have changed are still present in modern day society.
Now we're onto the real reason why I wanted to see this specific staging of The Merchant of Venice.
I'm going to give one long EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEH! of fan-girl adoration then move on (I mean he's Captain Jean Luc Picard AND Professor X AND a fantastic Shakespearean actor? What can't the guy do?)
Many reviews of the production have commented on how Stewart seems to be distinctly separated from the cast, and I would completely concur. He seems to inhabit a different sphere, both in his style and in his characterisation of Shylock. Whilst all other characters are styled extremely modern, Shylock is more reserved, more classical in his appearance, dressed in stylish suits or a tux. The production then attempts to reverse what would in Shakespearean times have been an accepted stereotype; that Shylock, as a Jew, was the bad guy. In this production however, we sympathise with the character. The lines of the play remain the same, the delivery is all altered, with Shylock presented as the summation of his experiences within a society where individuals are callous, shallow and insincere.
The finale "happy ending" is then left in limbo, as the false recounting of the final act highlights the tension between supposedly happy couples and friends. The resulting question of who is the winner in this situation is daunting - nobody wins, nobody is happy, and the beautiful words do nothing to hide the stark truth of how cultural stereotypes influence our perception. Whereas other productions may still accept the treatment of Shylock at face value, I was left wondering how I would have felt after a different show.
For me, this production was simply amazing, to the extent that I cannot express how much I enjoyed it or can recommend it. The fact that days later I'm still puzzling over the nuances in staging and style can only emphasise the brilliance of the cast, crew and director. Kudos.
So Catrin Says