The Merchant of Venice, Royal Shakespeare Theatre Stratford, 28 May 2011
It was difficult to escape the buzz surrounding this production: after press night knowledge of its salient feature became inevitable, despite attempts at avoiding reviews. The audacity of the venture meant that news of it spread far.
Entering the RST and encountering the set removed all doubt. We were in a Las Vegas casino.
The decor was striking. The huge figure of a girl in a casino uniform beamed down from the back wall. Two flights of steps led down from each side of a walkway running across the wall. The stage was initially arranged with a central gambling table and two side tables in front of it set diagonally in alignment with the downstage walkways.
When the audience was admitted to the auditorium the lonely figure of Antonio was already sat at the stage left table accompanied only by the croupier Salarino. A glaring contradiction had already been established between the loudness of the set and the gloomy soliloquy of silence emanating from Antonio.
The stage gradually filled with casino workers and patrons. An atmosphere of excitement built as gamblers risked their shirts, bar staff chatted and fun was had by all. This made Antonio seem even more isolated, as his dour, unsmiling face refused any engagement with the vibrant room around him.
The movements of those onstage became more coordinated and choreographed until they took on the features of a dance. Music played and showgirls appeared on the two stairways.
To crown it all, an Elvis impersonator, Gobbo, rose out of the centre table and sang “Viva Las Vegas”. By the end of the number the tables had been rearranged so that only the stage left one at which Antonio was sitting remained centre stage.
The combined effect of the initial shock of the set and the secondary shock of the dance number sung by Elvis was to present the audience with a challenging puzzle: what had any of this to do with The Merchant of Venice?
Antonio began to speak of his sadness, with Salarino now a consoling barkeep, and joined by Salanio, who had a distinct New Jersey accent. Antonio’s sadness contrasted with the uproarious pageant that had just finished, making him seem all the more melancholy by comparison.
The arrival of Lorenzo and Gratiano saw the latter make an attempt to lift Antonio’s mood. This exuberant Italian-American goodfella made an early impression as someone to watch out for later. His character really did deliver on Bassanio’s description of him as speaking “an infinite deal of nothing”. As the scene calmed after the exit of Gratiano and Lorenzo, Antonio responded to Bassanio’s plight by promising to help him financially.
The production continued to shock in scene 1.2. A sofa rose out of a trap door and presented us with Portia and Nerissa, two southern belles who talked in outrageously stilted and insincere voices. The reason for this emotional fakery was plain: they were accustomed to being on television. Above them stood two signs “APPLAUSE” and “ON AIR” and a camera lurked on the stage right walkway.
Their discussion outlined the basis of the casket game. As Portia asked Nerissa to name the various suitors who had come to take part, the on air sign lit up and the pair behaved even more self-consciously as their grotesque game show went live.
The sounds of possibly canned audience reactions were heard. A change to the text at l. 103 had Portia refer to “my daddy’s will”.
At the end of transmission the pair flopped cynically out of their onscreen personas with a look of relief. The servant bringing them news of the arrival of the strangers was a voice coming over the studio PA system.
The effect of this staging was to position Portia and Nerissa as pawns in a cynical game that obliged them to conform to stereotypical expectations. Theirs was a performance within a performance.
The screens above the stage showed CCTV images of the casino and streams of gambling data as the set changed for 1.3. A model of a cityscape was placed centre stage and Patrick Stewart’s Shylock stood using his walking stick to putt balls of paper into a cup. He was so engrossed in this pastime that he paid little attention to Bassanio and his request for three million dollars.
Bassanio left the stage briefly to fetch Antonio giving Shylock space to speak of his “ancient grudge”. He roused from his subdued mood when explaining the biblical story of Jacob grazing Laban’s sheep. Shylock really came alive when berating Antonio for his prejudice and hypocrisy, mockingly bowing to him when asking if he was expected to be generous in return for this treatment.
The comedy in the production so far meant that the pound of flesh bond could easily be dismissed as unserious. Shylock talked about the terms of the bond in jocular tones. This was designed to contrast with his subsequent bitterness. Antonio did not consider the bond as a potential danger and nothing in the upbeat mood of the production made it feel portentous.
Act two began with the first stage of Portia’s game show, entitled Destiny. The Prince of Morocco, a prize fighter in the Mike Tyson vein, entered to the sound of monkey chants from the galleries as bananas rained down onto the stage at his feet. This gave him good reason to retort “Mislike me not for my complexion”, which he directed not at Portia but at the audience.
Portia assured him that she did not go by looks alone, as she teetered on her high heels, her head topped by a large blonde wig. The prince’s scimitar was represented by the boxer’s flexed bicep. The temple that Portia invited him to before the casket game was in fact the sofa, an empty space on which she patted with her hand.
She stroked Morocco’s arm and then wiped her hand on the sofa. This subtle racism prefigured her later speech about those of his complexion.
Bassanio received his money in a suitcase in a dumb show staged on the walkway across the back wall of the set. Gobbo, the Elvis impersonator, sang “It’s Now or Never” underlying the make-or-break nature of the dilemma he was about to discuss with us.
Below the walkway at the back of the set stood three fruit machines, Gobbo sat at the central one and turned from it to face the audience and explain how he was in two minds about leaving Shylock’s service.
The words of his conscience and the fiend were spoken by an angel at his right and a devil as his left, who turned around from the fruit machines next to him. As Gobbo declared that the fiend was “the devil himself” the female fiend stuck out her tongue lasciviously. As they came into conflict the angel and devil had a mock fight.
Gobbo decided to run and the first person he met setting off from the fruit machines was his father, Old Gobbo. The fact that the text presents the old man as half-blind was used to portray Old Gobbo as a stereotypical blues singer with dark glasses and stick. This created a historically accurate personification of music history with the blues, in the person of Old Gobbo, shown to be the father of rock and roll, in the person of Elvis/Gobbo.
Gobbo knelt before his father, who mistook the hair on the top of his son’s head for his beard. To emphasise his poverty, Gobbo took the old man’s stick and poked the end of it at his ribs to show how famished he was.
Bassanio granted Gobbo’s request for service. Gobbo was understandably triumphant over his father who, Gobbo thought, had not believed he could get the position.
He sang two-thirds of An American Trilogy to express his upbeat mood.
Gratiano asked Bassanio if he could go to Belmont. His way of speaking and his hunched, slouched posture here, as previously, warranted Bassanio’s caution that he was “too rude and bold of voice”.
Jessica entered a dimly lit stage and switched on an unshaded 40w bulb hanging from the ceiling. She sat in a chair in frumpish clothes reading a book, establishing the general atmosphere of gloom in Shylock’s house.
Gobbo appeared in a black leather outfit and flipped the bird with both hands in the direction of the house. He sang “Are You Lonesome Tonight” as an ironic comment on Jessica’s situation, which prompted her initial remarks in 2.3 about the way he brought some brightness into her life. She tasked Gobbo with giving a letter to Lorenzo.
Scene 2.4 was a complete contrast. Lorenzo and friends set off for Belmont in a car, represented by the four of them sitting on car seats which rose the centre stage trap. As they drove along the track “Barbra Streisand” by Duck Sauce blared out of the stereo and punctuated their conversation.
Gobbo appeared in a motorcycle helmet and seemed to meet the car head on, causing both car and motorcycle to brake sharply. He delivered Jessica’s letter containing the escape plan to Lorenzo by talking to him through the open car window, all of which was suggested by mime.
Lorenzo gave Gobbo and crucifix as a token to give to Jessica. As he drove off, their seats reared back with the acceleration.
The pumping dance track continued to blare out as the scene changed to the interior of Shylock’s house in 2.5. He sat motionless in the gloom as the RST resounded to the sound of “Barbara Streisand”. Then the loud music cut out to be replaced by solemn classical music. This change of soundscape underlined the difference between Shylock’s house and the world of the revellers.
Shylock sat behind his desk getting ready to go to dinner. He gave Gobbo a cheque as his final wages. Jessica spilt some wine on his desk and used paper to mop it up. On leaving he blessed his daughter with a Hebrew prayer, kissing her on the head. After he had gone, Jessica silenced the music using a remote control.
The stage filled with masquers for 2.6 and we saw Gratiano disguised as Star Wars character Yoda and Salarino in a Care Bear costume. Lorenzo entered in a Batman outfit, and shortly afterwards Jessica appeared in a coat on the walkway representing the window of Shylock’s house. She took off her coat to reveal her Robin costume.
Jessica threw the casket of money and jewels down, hitting the ground with a thump uncaught by Lorenzo. Gratiano examined the contents and confirmed that Jessica was “no Jew”, presumably on the basis of sum of money she had released.
After the others had left, Gratiano met Antonio and greeted him using his Yoda voice so that his “Signior Antonio?” got a laugh from the audience.
Destiny went live at the start of 2.7. The three caskets on pedestals were in position with their inscriptions clearly visible on the front. Portia’s instructions to draw aside the curtains did not reveal the caskets, but instead revealed the contestant who entered through the centre doorway. After an interpolated countdown to transmission, Portia stood on the stage right stairway and began the casket game. Two assistants stood by the centre doors.
Morocco was still wearing his boxer outfit. When he called on “some god” to direct his judgement, he donned a pair of gold spectacles to inspect the caskets. Having selected the gold casket, a young version of Portia brought in the key to unlock it. Up popped a Damien Hurst style diamond encrusted skull with a scroll through its eye socket.
As Morocco bewailed his fate, Portia brought the show to a close with its catchphrase, here brought forward from its first occurrence in the text “Hanging and wiving goes by destiny”. She looked very stressed at the end of the transmission, which was underlined by the sound of Gobbo briefly singing All Shook Up.
The expository scene 2.8 was staged as a conversation in a lift, or should we say ‘elevator’?
Salarino and Salanio discussed the elopement of Jessica, Shylock’s reaction and the rumours of a Venetian shipwreck as the lift descended. It stopped at regular intervals and other passengers came and went. Each time the lift moved off, those inside rose on their toes to indicate the downward lurch of the lift cabin.
When Salanio mimicked Shylock’s wailing over his dollars and jewels, he mentioned “stones” with his hands over his testicles, bringing out the bawdy connotation of that word.
The last person left in the lift was a janitor with a mop and bucket. As he in turn left the lift, he found himself being beckoned away by some of the Destiny studio personnel.
The janitor appeared at the start of 2.9 dressed as a Mexican mariachi singer. This implied that not only were Portia and Nerissa completely fake, but so also were some of the competitors in the game.
In his role as the Prince of Arragon, the janitor was a quieter and more reflective character than Morocco. But that did not prevent him picking the incorrect silver casket and being presented with a fool’s head. Portia’s onstage assistants pulled faces and pointed guns at their heads as a stylised expression of Arragon’s failure.
Arragon read the scroll, and paused over the word “iwis”, which was understandable.
The show ended with Nerissa repeating the hanging and wiving catchphrase. As they went off air a studio hand brought them news of Bassanio’s arrival at Belmont. The camp excitement of his glowing description was comical.
Act three began in a diner. Salanio ate some spaghetti with a serviette tucked into his shirt facing Salarino. As they discussed the wreck of one of Antonio’s ships, Shylock entered and sat at a far off table with his back to Salanio.
As Shylock took his seat, Salanio made a hissing sound and mimed turning taps. For an instant I thought this was a hiss of disapproval until I realised that this was actually an anti-Semitic taunt in which Salanio was imitating the sound of a gas chamber.
Salanio also mocked Shylock when he complained of Jessica’s elopement by saying that he “knew the tailor that made the wings she flew withal” which was funny in the context of her Robin costume, which had made her into a bird flying the nest.
At first Shylock turned round in his chair to direct his replies to Salanio. He became increasingly agitated and then got up and went over to the other table to deliver his “Hath not…” speech.
Returning Salanio’s taunt, Shylock leant over him and extended the final syllable of “If you poison ussss…” into an identical hiss. This was particularly powerful and injected a note of seriousness into the otherwise jocular production.
Tubal brought with him a copy of the WSJ to show Shylock the news of Antonio’s wrecked ship. He told Shylock about Jessica spending four thousand dollars in an evening and produced a picture on his iPhone of the ring that she had traded for a monkey.
Shylock asked Tubal to find an officer to arrest Antonio. Left alone onstage, he danced some steps from a Jewish folk dance and punched the air in angry resolution, at which point the interval came.
The audience returned for the second half (3.2) to see Bassanio sat on a stool by the stage left walkway having his television make-up done in preparation for his appearance on Destiny.
Portia was back in full bimbo mode. She told Bassanio “I could teach you how to choose right” which prompted one of the studio staff, obviously following Portia’s father’s instructions, to tick her off. Recognising her admonishment, Portia said in frustration “But then I am forsworn”. This underscored the extent to which Portia was unwillingly trapped in this grotesque parody of normal matchmaking.
At l. 32 where Portia said “I fear you speak upon the rack”, she clasped her chest, creating the impression that this was the “rack” to which she referred.
Portia’s request “Let music sound” was done as a cheesy to-camera speech as part of the broadcast as Bassanio temporarily left the stage/studio. He re-entered dressed as an ancient warrior and Portia greeted him with a cheerleader style cry of “Go, Hercules!”
Portia sang as Bassanio inspected the caskets. As he looked at the gold casket, he commented on the falseness of things that appear to be gold. This included a reference to “those crisped snaky golden locks” that often turn out to be “the dowry of a second head”. This was a crucial reference, as Portia’s own curled, blonde hair would soon turn out to be a wig.
Bassanio chose and opened the lead casket, which contained nothing but a remote control. He used it to play a video of Portia in close-up reading the text of the lead casket’s scroll. Portia appeared shocked and did not at first understand why the casket was empty.
As the show went off air, we could see that Portia was unhappy. This was unexpected, given her previous enthusiasm for Bassanio to win her. She took off her wig to reveal her real hair underneath and launched into a long speech outlining her feelings of unworthiness: “unlessoned… unschooled, unpractised”. But her self-esteem did extend to giving Bassanio a ring, the abandonment of which would render him worthless.
Spying others arriving, Portia quickly replaced her wig. Gratiano announced his impending marriage to Nerissa, which had depended on Bassanio’s success. Jessica, Lorenzo and Salarino made up the numbers, with Salarino bringing a letter from Antonio to Bassanio.
Bassanio, still dressed as Hercules, sat despondently on the steps of the centre downstage walkway and read the letter, explaining to the others that all Antonio’s ships had been lost and that therefore Shylock’s bond was forfeit.
When it emerged that Shylock wanted his pound of flesh, Portia asked how much Bassanio owed. On hearing the (to her) paltry sum, she exclaimed “What, No more?” in comic disbelief.
Antonio appeared upstage right and spoke the words of his own letter to the assembled company.
The stage went dark for 3.3 and a trapeze artist swung about downstage. Shylock entered down the centre aisle with a torch, shining it intermittently at the audience as if looking for someone. He grabbed Antonio from the audience in the stage right stalls and put him into the hands of the Jailer. He repeated his insistence on having his bond.
Portia, Nerissa and Jessica rose out of the trap on the sofa for 3.4 wearing dressing gowns. They were having a girly night in and engaged in general preening. Nerissa filed her nails. Jessica tried to position cucumber slices over her eyes. Portia listened to Journey’s Don’t Stop Believing through headphones, which we could hear. She took out her headphones so that Lorenzo could speak to her. The music immediately died away, emphasising that we were hearing it the way she did.
Portia talked about Antonio and gestured towards the laptop as if she had been Googling him. She explained her and Nerissa’s impending departure to a monastery, but Nerissa looked stunned at this sudden revelation.
Portia’s parting words to Jessica were very patronising. She waved her off as if talking to a small child. This was an indication of Portia’s latent racism against Jessica, who retaliated subtly by eating her cucumber slice as she departed.
Portia gave her servant Balthazar the letter to take to Doctor Bellario. He looked at it and exclaimed camply “Oh my God!” Portia accused him of lethargy and his riposte “Madam, I go, with all convenient speed” was said as a put-down.
Once Lorenzo and Jessica had left, Portia fetched two carrier bags (Hogan and Missoni) and both of them proceeded to strip to their underwear to change into their menswear disguises.
The second half of scene 3.3 was held over until after 3.4 and was staged with prisoner 24623 Antonio in an orange jumpsuit downstage talking with Salanio on the upper walkway by telephone. They discussed the Duke’s imminent consideration of Antonio’s case.
Gobbo and Jessica joked around by the upstage stage left steps in 3.5. Gobbo made pig noises when ribbing Jessica about conversions raising the price of pork. He tried to grab her as if grasping a pig, causing Lorenzo to comment on Gobbo getting his wife “into corners”. Gobbo sang a bit of Blue Suede Shoes and then exited.
Act four began with the stage being transformed into an abattoir. A wide metal ring hung with meat hooks descended from the flies and the centre doors were replaced by transparent strip doors behind which the shapes of animal carcases could be seen.
Antonio stood handcuffed in an orange jumpsuit by a seat downstage left. Shylock was called into the court. He appeared in a yarmulke and with a tallit katan under his jacket. He stood downstage right by a table on which he placed his briefcase.
The Duke asked Shylock why he wanted his pound of flesh and Shylock’s response, beginning from “What if my house be trouble with a rat…” was read as a prepared statement from a piece of paper taken from his briefcase. His delivery was monotone and he made appropriate animal noises at each mention of pig and cat. This unusual behaviour fitted with the unusual nature of the case. He used the word “Shabbat” rather the text’s “Sabbath”.
Bassanio stood ready with flight cases containing the cash for Shylock. But the usurer took great pleasure in examining an individual dollar bill and countering that if “every dollar in six million dollars were in six parts, and every part a dollar, I would not draw them”. He shouted that he did not fear judgement having done no wrong.
He pointed at the janitor as an example of the slaves that the Venetians had no moral quandaries about owning.
Nerissa entered in her male disguise just as Shylock began whetting his knife. Gratiano, who had previously been noted for his loud, inappropriate behaviour, launched into a stream of invective against Shylock, who replied with a simple insistence on his bond.
Portia’s question as to which was the merchant and which the Jew was comical given that the room clearly contained one man wearing traditional Jewish garments, and another with his hands bound wearing a jump suit. This apparent lack of insight did not bode well for her ability to resolve the case, particularly in the context of her previous bimbo persona.
When asked by Portia if his name was Shylock, he corrected the pronunciation to “She-lach” in what was a very powerful moment in the performance.
Portia’s quality of mercy speech was delivered in a “duh” mode of speech, as if she was explaining the idea to someone very dim. She held a long pause after “strained”. This managed to turn the speech from a paean on true justice into a whiny accusation.
Portia looked at the bond, expressing surprise at its reference to flesh being cut from near the heart, and concluded that it was forfeit. She consulted some thick law books, heavily annotated with pink stickies and overseen by Nerissa on another table. The lines about the “balance” were cut as Shylock brought with him no scales.
Antonio’s long farewell speech saw him sharing an extended moment of intimacy with Bassanio. The two hugged and held each other close. The groping had sexual overtones. During this time Shylock stood and prayed on the stage right walkway, after putting on an outer tallit gadol.
Bassanio’s and Gratiano’s references to their respective wives were picked up by Portia and Nerissa as they looked up from their law books.
Portia awarded Shylock his pound of flesh, at which point he told Antonio to “come, prepare”. Antonio’s chest was bared and his bound hands were hoisted upwards so that he was left almost dangling.
Shylock took a pen and made a cross marking the intended point of incision. He returned again with a large knife taken from his brief case and gestured with it over Antonio’s chest as if working out how best to proceed.
By this stage Antonio was gasping in panic. He recited part of the Lord’s Prayer until a guard stopped his mouth with a leather wallet, which looked like a rather simplistic visual metaphor.
Portia stood at the top of the upstage right stairway and looked on with great concern. Just as Shylock took his knife and prepared to plunge it into Antonio’s chest she burst out “Tarry a little…” Thus several torturous minutes passed between the end of Shylock’s line and Portia’s intervention.
Her insistence that Shylock could take flesh but shed no blood was backed up by her showing him the relevant act in one of the law books.
With Shylock defeated, Portia ignored his request to receive the money and pressed him to take only a pound of flesh, no more, no less. She delighted in addressing Shylock insultingly as “Jew” just a little too much. This began to make her look unsympathetic and much like Gratiano, who was himself jubilant at this “second Daniel”.
In desperation, Shylock drew a handgun and aimed it at Antonio. The guard drew his weapon and the stand-off ended with Shylock throwing his gun to the ground and walking away.
When the case was settled and a deed of gift arranged for Lorenzo and Jessica to receive half of Shylock’s wealth on his death, Shylock exited muttering “Balthazar” under his breath. Gratiano spat on his back as he turned to leave.
Following Antonio’s release, he and Bassanio continued to comfort each other. But Antonio refused Bassanio’s offer of a hug as they both exited.
Portia removed Bassanio’s glove to take as a present and then saw the ring, which she then insisted on receiving. Bassanio allowed himself to be persuaded by Antonio to send the ring to Balthazar via Gratiano.
Nerissa and Portia walked up the stairs onto the walkway in 4.2 where they were met by Gratiano who handed over Bassanio’s ring. There was a comic moment in which Gratiano tried to hug Portia/Balthazar with a manly arm grip.
Act five saw a change of mood. Gobbo sang “Love Me Tender” as a background to Jessica and Lorenzo’s romantic musings. The messenger Stephano was replaced by a maid called Stephanie who brought news of Portia’s imminent arrival.
Nerissa accompanied Portia on the upper walkway. They described the view of the house as Jessica and Lorenzo hugged on the sofa below them and then descended the stairs. Portia was in smart female clothes but no longer wearing her blonde wig. A car horn sounded, which Lorenzo recognised as heralding Bassanio, saying “I hear his trumpet” to much audience amusement.
Portia was wary of Antonio and her welcome to him was less than enthusiastic. This was the first indication that she suspected something was amiss.
Gratiano began arguing with Nerissa about the ring, which his wife had managed to obtain from him in her male disguise. Gratiano paused before snitching on Bassanio and telling Portia that her husband had given his ring away as well.
Portia took great delight in turning Bassanio’s rhetorical flourishes back on him as she ended each line of her accusation with “…the ring”.
The final moments of the performance were problematic. The director Rupert Goold turned the happy ending of the text into an unhappy one by showing a breakdown in Portia and Bassanio’s relationship based on the latter’s homoerotic attachment to Antonio, which had been heavily hinted at already.
Antonio, Portia and Bassanio sat on the sofa with Portia in the middle. Antonio tried to diffuse the tension by explaining that his bond was the cause of the present strife, stating “I once did lend my body for his wealth”.
Antonio and Bassanio reached out and held hands right under Portia’s nose, which wrinkled in disgust as she realised the true nature of the friendship between her husband and his faithful buddy.
She rose from the sofa and gave her ring to Antonio to return to Bassanio. In the context of her recent realisation and consequent revulsion at her husband, this looked like her inviting Antonio to marry Bassanio. Her comment “Bid him keep it better than the other” became a dismissive enjoinder for her husband to be truer to Antonio than he had been to her.
Portia went over to the stage right walkway and donned her blonde bimbo wig and stepped into one of her high heels. Gratiano talked roughly with Nerissa, causing Portia to retort “Speak not so grossly” as she made the shock disclosure that she and Nerissa were responsible for freeing Antonio and resolving the entire affair. Her news about Antonio’s ships come to harbour was presented on a Destiny cue card.
The words of the text’s happy ending were spoken, but the mood of the performance veered in the opposite direction.
Antonio, Bassanio and Gratiano looked on in stunned disbelief as Portia began to move in clumsy circles in one high-heeled shoe, holding her wig as a dance partner to the tune of “Are You Lonesome Tonight” with lyrics adapted to contain Shakespearean references.
This concluding tableau showed us Portia regressing to the security of her bimbo persona in the wake of discovering the truth about Antonio and Bassanio.
In addition, we saw Bassanio and Gratiano’s incomprehension at the intelligence and skill of the women they had originally fallen in love with on the basis of their mediated images as airheads.
This was certainly Portia’s play. Shylock was by comparison a grey, marginal figure, but one who had some good comebacks at his tormentors. The whole issue of anti-Semitism was sidelined to the extent that some in the audience tittered at expressions of it.
Another interesting feature of the production was the decision to have all the cast speak in American accents. This did not just tally with the Vegas setting. The American voice somehow made it possible for the cast to extend the dramatic range of their performances and make them more expansive and less “English”.
It was gratifying to see a bold, new interpretation of a Shakespeare play success so well, despite the apparent barminess of its concept.
Rupert Goold did not give us the “promised end” of the Merchant of Venice, but he did deliver something fascinating and, despite of its outward glitz, surprisingly deep: rather like key character Portia herself.