The Merchant of Venice

William Shakespeare

Royal Shakespeare Company

Almeida Theatre

From 05 December 2014 to 14 February 2015

Review by Philip Fisher

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Rupert Goold has never been afraid of messing with Shakespeare. Where others see the canon as sacrosanct, he sees it more as a source of inspiration that the Holy Grail.

That has probably never more been the case than with this modernised version of The Merchant of Venice for the RSC (first seen in 2011), set in modern day Las Vegas (though Venice Beach would have made more sense).

The opening scene takes place in a loud, glitzy casino, complete with showgirls, Elvis impersonator and its own garish Rialto Bridge. This is the locale for Scott Handy's timid Antonio, whose love for the colourless Bassanio, played by Tom Weston-Jones feels devoted but a little creepy.

It does bring the pair into contact with Ian McDiarmid (replacing Patrick Stewart from the original cast) playing Shylock as an unpleasant Germanic businessman with very determined ideas and a strong religious belief, which is disdained and ridiculed by the patronising Antonio.

Forget ducats, in Venice-Nevada the loan required to permit Bassanio to court a lady rich as Croesus is a cool $3m.

The irony here is that the giggling Southern Belles whom the young man wishes to approach might be airheads but they can laugh at millions to such a degree that Portia could surely be modelled on no one but Paris Hilton.

Susannah Fielding gives a deliciously funny character performance as a billionairess bimbo who convinces and amuses right through a first half during which her father's posthumous demands on any man who wishes to take a hand in marriage are literally turned into a TV game show.

The comic tone fits well with scenes of love and greed, Shylock looking rather a caricature as he drives the hardest of bargains, although Antonio's malevolence seems a reasonable justification.

The Jew becomes more sympathetic after his daughter runs off with both a Christian and the family jewels but in this modern incarnation is still hard to love.

This is all great fun but does lead those who know the play to wonder how it will hang together when things get serious after the interval.

The coherence that Goold worked so hard to achieve is not so easily found when the play moves into its dramatic court scene that seems drawn straight from prime-time TV.

It is hard to take the slight, far from intellectual Portia seriously as a man or an advocate, while the racist murmurs around the courthouse are soon echoed in hisses emerging from the lawyer, supposedly a fount of fairness and wisdom far beyond his/her meagre years.

Now, Shylock comes off rather better, if only by comparison with what almost seems like a Ku Klux Klan gathering baying for his blood. The bad taste that this leaves also rather takes the shine off what is supposed to be a charming comic ending.

This brave and novel adaptation will not appeal to all, but it does try to show audiences how Shakespeare might have addressed the issues of The Merchant of Venice today and will certainly make viewers reconsider the play, even if it is doesn't quite hit the bullseye.