Theatre review – The Merchant of Venice at the Almeida Theatre

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Back in 2011, I had been very much looking forward to seeing Rupert Goold’s new production of The Merchant of Venice for the RSC. Sadly work commitments meant I never made it to the show and I was therefore very pleased to hear that the same production, with most of the original cast, would be coming to the Almeida stage and tonight I finally saw the show for myself.

I’m familiar with the play, but up until now I’ve never seen it on stage. I can’t think of a better production to start with, which through its unique, imaginative and exciting concept still managed to fit the text of a play written in the 1590s! This production moves the events of the play in to a Las Vegas world of excess, as we see the world of the gambler, making perfect sense for a play most well known for the lending of money and a debt being owed. Bassanio is desperate to try and win the hand of Portio and asks his good friend Antonio, a merchant, for money to help him travel to compete in a game to win her. Antonio wants to help, but cannot lend the money, as all his wealth is tied up in trade ships still at sea. He suggests approaching the Jewish moneylender Shylock, with whom he does not get on and that he will act as guarantor. The loan is agreed. However, if unpaid, Shylock will be entitled to a pound of Antonio’s flesh, to be taken from near his heart, resulting in likely death.

Ian McDiarmid as Shylock in The Merchant of Venice at the Almeida theatre
Ian McDiarmid as Shylock

Replacing Patrick Stewart in the role of Shylock (probably one of Shakespeare’s most well known characters) is Ian McDiarmid, who was Artistic Director of the Almeida (together with Jonathan Kent) from 1990 – 2001 and is returning to the theatre here for the first time. Shylock is a difficult man to categorise – he is both a cruel man, but also an outsider and despite his actions, those of the rest of characters in the court scenes mean no one escapes this play well. McDiarmid is a brilliant actor and plays the role with a creepy, malevolent quality. His manner in the court scene as he prepares to take what he is owed from Antonio, dressed in orange prison jump suit tied at the waist, is very chilling indeed. He seems to glide across the stage, knife in hand, as he delights in the thought of Antonio’s death.

Scott Handy, reprising his role as Antonio, is very good at playing a man who will clearly do anything for the love of his friend Bassanio, even if that results in his death. It is clear his love for him goes beyond the bounds of friendship and in this production I certainly felt that, although he seems to love Portio, it seems clear that Bassanio also loves Antonio as well, which adds an unresolved quality to the final scene and this relationship is deftly played by Handy and Tom Weston-Jones. Lighter moments of hilarity are provided in particular by the character of Lancelot Gobbo, who shifts from working for Shylock to Bassanio and in a surreal choice, which actually works, spends most of the play as a Las Vegas Elvis singer!

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Tom Weston-Jones as Bassanio & Scott Handy as Antonio

However, for me, the star of the production is Susannah Fielding as Portio, whose dead father arranged for her husband to be determined through a game of three chests. In this glitzy, showy Vegas world, the girl whose fate is left in the hands of chance, sees her potential suitors participate in a live gameshow, Destiny, in which they select either the box of gold, silver or lead, in the hope of winning the prize of her hand. It’s a brilliant concept which works superbly. I also loved that, like the world around her, all that glitters is not gold and this Portio is not all she seems. A seemingly ditzy Texan airhead in front of the cameras, we soon see that this is indeed an act and that there is much more beneath the surface. I certainly felt that Antonio’s debt to Shylock, although a key plot line, was only second to the story of Portio’s journey and the ending of this production was particularly interesting in how we leave Portio. It feels unresolved and by no means happy and I understand from others, that this is not usually how the scene is played. It’ll certainly be interesting to compare with the next production I see, but Fielding’s portrayal will certainly stay with me for quite a while.

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Emily Plumtree as Narissa & the brilliant Susannah Fielding as Portio

The set by Tom Scutt is a vibrant, vivid, Vegas world of casinos, but I loved that the central staircase seemed to be based on the bridges of Venice, especially the Rialto, giving a subtle nod to the play’s original Venetian setting and the costumes and make up were also wonderful. In a time in which the news is sadly reporting increases in anti-semitism, I did feel a little strange coming to see a play, in which the focus of so many characters is the dreadful attitude towards Shylock the Jew. However I left the theatre with a sense that the play highlights just how awful this attitude is and that there is bigotry on both sides. Shylock clearly is a morally questionable man, due to his eagerness to see Antonio die, but despite that, you cannot watch the play without feeling disgust at the way he himself is also treated by those around him, making the play feel frighteningly relevant over 400 years after it was written.

This was an incredibly impressive, engaging production, which crucially for a Shakespeare play has been clearly conceived to make it easy to follow for those less familiar with the story. The acting is excellent and Rupert Goold’s setting is an imaginative idea that genuinely works, demonstrating yet again that Shakespeare truly can be reimagined in new and exciting ways. I’m thrilled I was finally able to see a production I’d heard so much about over the last three years and if you are able to get a ticket this week to see it, then I urge you to make the effort.

The Merchant of Venice runs at the Almeida Theatre until Saturday (14th February). Tickets keep popping up on the website and day seats are released at 11 a.m. in person each day. There is also a decent chance of returns at the theatre (call the box office on 020 7359 4404 for more information), making it worth a try if you are able to make a visit to North London this week. 

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