Saturday 20 December 2014

The Merchant of Venice at the Almeida, or, Waiting in Vain for Revelation

I think I read this play at school, but it has not particularly stuck in my memory (I hadn't for example properly registered that “prick us do we not bleed” etc. is in it). I've only seen it staged once, in an Edinburgh Lyceum production of which I retain no particular memory. This performance convinced me that there are powerful and disturbing elements to the play. Unfortunately it also demonstrated that Rupert Goold as a director lacks the ability to make those elements tell.

My previous encounter with Goold and Shakespeare was his bafflingly over-praised kitchen-set Macbeth. His Merchant has more going for it but is, ultimately, not much more successful. This time Goold has relocated the play to Las Vegas. Or at least he's relocated about half the play there. After the interval, as the play darkens, although the basic set remains exactly the same (minus the slot machines, and with the Almeida's back wall exposed through the gaudy set) it is sadly unclear where we are, with unfortunate results for the play.

While the Vegas setting is being played up, the visuals (blue and gold colouring), the trappings (the aforementioned slot machines and card tables), the extras (Lancelot Gobbo's Elvis and a number of scantily clad women) present plenty of spectacle. The problem is there's insufficient behind it. For example. Antonio plays his opening scene with Bassanio seated at a card table losing chips. Presumably we're meant to link this with a wider narrative of ridiculous gambling – all those enterprises set forth, the insanity of the contract with Shylock. The programme notes, which I read afterwards, comment the play is sometimes seen as Shakespeare's “gay play” and looking back I can sort of see suggestions of this in Goold's reading. But none of it is fully developed, or knitted together into a convincing whole. Even more bizarre is Lorenzo's “abduction” of Jessica in which they are dressed up as the Adam West/Burt Ward Batman and Robin. There's no sense of the sort of mind or life story that either of them would need to come up with this scheme and, beneath that, their relationship is left frustratingly blank – what exactly is the feeling between them, why have they together agreed on this course of action? The result is that later Antonio's plight, and then Lorenzo/Jessica scenes where you feel Goold wants to suggest troubled relations don't pack the punch they ought because those well staged moments are built on such thin foundations. The same problem goes for just about every other character and relationship in the show.

This divorce between the two halves frustrated me most with respect to the Lorenzo/Jessica scene just mentioned and the trial scene between Antonio and Shylock. Now the trial should be chilling. But several things go wrong. Apart from Antonio's orange Guantanamo type jumpsuit and the assembled company's accents, there was to me no feeling of concrete setting. In so far as the residual Las Vegas idea remains, it's hard to square it with the Duke and the threat to the city's charter. Nor has the production done enough earlier to build a sense of religious prejudice threatening to spill over into violence. The way the company turn on Shylock (including Portia in disguise) revolts, but it revolts in an abstract sense, and Shylock had been played too coldly and unsympathetically earlier for my sympathy to be really deeply engaged. Added to which it fails to convince as to a connection to larger darkness. On this reading I felt I'd encountered a collection of nasty people with none of whom (excepting Jessica and Lorenzo, and, to a lesser extent Antonio) did I have much sympathy.

For once, and standing out against other recent Shakespeare, the verse speaking is often very good. These performers are mostly up to the Shakespeare challenge but are let down by the concept in which they're trapped. There's a particularly telling turn from Raphael Sowole as Salerio. It's a minor role, but Sowole has great presence and speaks the verse beautifully – I'd like very much to see him offered a larger Shakespeare part. My eye and heart were closest to being caught by Finlay Robinson's Lorenzo and Caroline Martin's Jessica – Goold's failure to follow through his evident ideas about them is one of the biggest flaws of the production. The headline casting is obviously Ian McDiarmid's Shylock. He's capable of that spell-binding Shakespearean delivery when you feel the silence deepen around you and the audience hanging on his every word – the last scene of the first half including the famous lines mentioned at the start of this review was the best instance. But elsewhere he gabbles, words aren't always clear and the character lacks depth. There are suggestive moments – his scene with Jessica before she leaves him – but again Goold doesn't allow the performers to follow them through consistently. What Shylock or his daughter really feel about each other after her desertion is left far too opaque in this reading. Scott Handy's Antonio also speaks the text well, and often inhabits the stage with presence but is undone by the flaws of characterisation previously discussed. Goold's conception of Portia is the most baffling thing in the piece, and the one which really made me want to go back to the text.  She's turned into a reality-tv prize which made me want to run a mile (does Goold assume the audience is filled with people gripped by this kind of shallow performance? God help us if it actually is). After Bassanio chooses correctly there's a striking scene where she seems to unmask. That she then masks up again in various ways is potentially fascinating, but once again Goold botches the presentation of it – and her behavior in the final moments is another of those occasions where I watched baffled and irritated. Finally, worth particular mention, is Jamie Beamish's Elvis inflected Lancelot Gobbo. This does make something out of Gobbo's text, but I'm afraid by the end I felt like Lorenzo in wanting to shut him up (again not the fault of the performer).

Ultimately this is a frustrating experience. It provides glimpses of a play with the capacity to unsettle and appal, but in the end it is a triumph of shallow momentary show over sustained heart or head engaging substance.

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