A Merchant of Venice
Â The Merchant is set in Las Vegas. My partner thought I wouldnâ€™t like it. He was wrong. I loved it. First of all, I thought the ideas came from the text. Secondly, I wished I had thought about these ideas when I taught the play for GCSE and A Level. I didnâ€™t.
Las Vegas is about gambling (established at the beginning and before the dialogue begins. Make sure youâ€™re in your seats at least 10 minutes before the start time). Antonio gambles with his money in argosies. Bassanio gambles for Portia in the casket game. Shylock gambles on a naive reading of the law. Portia and Nerissa gamble on a silly psychological game of the rings. Even Launcelot Gobbo gambles on being with the right religion because he doesnâ€™t care about either. He only cares about Elvis. At the end itâ€™s possible that Portia gambled at reading the emotional and psychological dimensions of the suit for her correctly; she might not have done. Brilliant! And complex.
Then, now and whenever are all muddled up, intertwined, and time becomes irrelevant. Portia is filmed for a ghastly TV programme with her suitors. She is a great performer and hates the show. Â She, a Texan hussy heiress, Â is on the make. Bassanio is on the make (why had I not seen this from the text when he makes absolutely clear that he is wooing Portia because she is â€˜richly leftâ€™and because he has lost (squandered?) his money?). Antonio is on the make. He is gambling in a casino even though all his money is in his argosies. Shylock is on the make because he thinks he can get one over on the Christians.
These ghastly materialists all lose out. What is unusual and what I had never thought of before is that the only one who is in the same place at the end as at the beginning is Antonio. He is alone, gambling at the beginning. He is alone at the end. And Scott Handy, with an expressionless face, distant blocking and sometimes quite flat delivery, played him as boring and unattractive. Not the dishy, betrayed guy that the gays can feel sorry for. It isnâ€™t the way I would have asked someone to play the part. It was much more interesting than I could have thought of. If Bassanio was in love with him (as one friend who saw it thought), then there was no obvious reason except money. Idea and theme again.
There are some very unexpected things. You donâ€™t expect Launcelot Gobbo to be an Elvis Impersonator in a casino. You donâ€™t expect that the caskets are the basis of a TV game show where the winner gets the Texan dollybird heiress. You donâ€™t expect that the first half Portia will manage to be Balthazar at all â€“ thatâ€™s a good gin and tonic topic for discussion. You also donâ€™t expect the ending. Maybe I will add something to this blog towards the end of the run, but I donâ€™t want to put my ideas in your head before you see it. But I can pretty well guarantee that you will come out at the end asking each other â€œWell, what did that mean, then?â€
And thereâ€™s Patrick Stewart as Shylock. Heâ€™s a bigot (but so is this Antonio). He can be very charming. His mafia friends who are involved in the Las Vegas meat business no doubt find him so. And he has some dignity. I was delighted and surprised at Stewartâ€™s restraint. It made his character much more credible than Shylock often is, and less of a stereotype, I thought it was a wonderful performance in a production which had many fascinating performances.
Here are some questions to think about while youâ€™re seeing it:
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â We know what Bassanioâ€™s motive is â€“ to marry a â€œlady richly leftâ€. What is Portiaâ€™s?
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â What is the relationship between Antonio and Bassanio?
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â What do Lorenzo and Jessica think they are up to?
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Does anyone come out with any moral credit at the end?
I thought this was a very fine production and one of the RSCâ€™s most coherently conceptual for a long time. I shall certainly be seeing it several more times.