Review: The Merchant of Venice, Almeida Theatre

“You know someone said that’ the world’s a stage”

One almost wishes that Rupert Goold had gone the whole hog and renamed this The Merchant of Vegas – Portia’s Turn, so complete is the re-envisioning of Shakespeare’s work here that it almost deserves the new title. The Merchant of Venice is commonly considered one of the problem plays and so it is not too unusual to see grand concepts imposed upon it and that is certainly what Goold has delivered here in this modern-day Sin City-set adaptation. Naturally it doesn’t solve all the issues about the play and it does introduce some problems of its own but with its verve and vision, it is a breath-taking experience.

Much of this comes from a genuinely sensational performance from Susannah Fielding as Portia, who is in many ways at the centre of this interpretation, the character foregrounded in a way I’ve never seen before. In this gaudy world of all-night casinos, Elvis impersonators and reality TV, she is the star and ultimate prize of a gameshow called Destiny, caskets remaining in situ as no-hopers compete for her hand. But once the cameras are off and she aims squarely for Bassanio’s heart, the complexity deepens considerably as Fielding lays this woman bare in all her insecure vanity and condescending cruelty – there’s no doubting how this Portia feels about Jews as she patronises Jessica and vilifies Shylock.

But still too, there’s more to come as she looks on aghast once she sees the full consequences of her courtroom actions carried out by the boots and spittle of others, one can believe she might well have been unaware of the floodgate she was opening beyond her own prejudices. And there’s something almost unimaginably punishing about the final scene with all its ambivalence at how the plot has unfolded and where the cards now lay, now they’ve been scattered for the last time. Her realisation at the true nature of what passes between her new husband and Antonio setting off a fiercely disturbing breakdown – career-defining work.

As Portia rises, so too does her companion Nerissa, Emily Plumtree admirably rising to the challenge of finding equal strength and uncertainty in the situation she has wrought as Anthony Welsh’s Gratiano reveals a callous brutishness in response to their trick. Scott Handy’s Antonio is a haunting figure when strung up in the courtroom, conveying a real fear that electrifies that scene, and even his relationship with Tom Weston-Jones’ Bassanio isn’t particularly straight-forward, despite the evident depth of feeling. Caroline Martin’s Jessica has a beautiful self-possessed air that allows to keep even the smallest shred of dignity, Jamie Beamish’s Elvis-like Lancelot Gobbo works well, everywhere you look inventive and interesting touches abound.

Ian McDiarmid makes his Shylock similarly fascinating with his take on the character. Patrick Stewart took on the role for the original RSC production back in 2011 but it is hard to see how he could have captured the pointed fragility McDiarmid brings – shuffling but scabrous, he somehow demands scorn and sympathy in equal measure. In the visual splendour conjured by Tom Scutt’s set, the punchy beat of Adam Cork’s music (complete with Taylor Swift interlude) and Rick Fisher’s consummate lighting, this Merchant emerge as a gamble that has paid off handsomely.

Running time: 2 hours 50 minutes (with interval)
Photo: Ellie Kurttz
Booking until 14th February

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