Rupert Goold is never one to do things by halves. In previous productions, he has shown a penchant for showbiz glitz, so it’s perhaps no surprise that he has decided here to shift the action from Venice to Las Vegas.
Emily Plumtree (Nerissa) and Susannah Fielding (Portia) in The Merchant of Venice at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon Photo: Ellie Kurrtz/RSC
Kicking off with a big song and dance number and transforming Gobbo into an Elvis tribute act, the production embraces its theme with no small amount of relish. Patrick Stewart’s Shylock is a casino kingpin, while Bassanio and his retinue become macho mobsters. It is a transposition that for the most part works remarkably, bringing a real sense of dynamism and energy to the play and giving it a filmic quality that has been present in much of the director’s work.
But the most surprising aspect of Goold’s production is in his treatment of Portia. In a stand-out performance and making her RSC debut, Susannah Fielding plays her as a Southern belle forced to take part in a tacky TV game show to find a husband. By the end of the play, she is left as a kind of Stepford wife, trapped in a loveless marriage and spiralling into breakdown. She becomes as much the tragic centre of the play as Shylock - as much a victim of male Christian dominance as the Jew.
There is a downside to this radical reading of the play - Stewart’s Shylock seems strangely peripheral to much of the action. Because of this, the production will divide audiences, but is undoubtedly vital and on occasion inspired. Meanwhile, the staging - by Tom Scutt - rebuffs suggestions that the RSC’s new thrust stage can’t handle grand scenic design.