Yes, I'm all shook up. Rupert Goold's Las Vegas-themed production of the Merchant won't appeal to people who disapprove of Elvis, but I loved it. I found it one of the most entertaining nights I've spent in the theatre for a long time.
Goold is known for his theatrical chutzpah and this production, which I first saw in Stratford in 2011, exemplifies his bold style. But on a second viewing, what emerges is real theatrical substance, not just a stylish 21st century makeover of Shakespeare. Yes, Goold and his cast deliver the glister, but they also deliver the gold in terms of tension, drama and intelligent characterisation.
The cast is little changed from the RSC's original Stratford production, but there is one major substitution. Ian McDiarmid replaces Patrick Stewart as Shylock, and he delivers a subtle and multi-layered interpretation of the role. His German-accented Shylock counts 'ein, zwei, drei' under his breath, and oozes a caustic mix of anger and misplaced humour. His route to Las Vegas, we feel, has been a very long one, probably passing through the Holocaust and the variety stage. The awkwardness of his first scene with Bassanio and Antonio, when he agrees to lend the money, is enhanced by the way Shylock cackles at his own bad jokes. When he loses his daughter Jessica, Shylock flips and his desire for revenge becomes all-consuming.
The hostility between Shylock and his Christian adversaries crackles, and reaches a climax in the trial scene, with Antonio (Scott Handy) quivering bare-chested in an orange prisoner jumpsuit. But in Goold's interpretation this is less a play about Shylock than about Portia. Both of them go on a journey, but in this production it is Portia who has the more interesting trajectory.
Susannah Fielding's Portia was for me the highlight of the Stratford RSC production, and she is even better at the Almeida. Initially a blonde airhead whose choice of a marriage partner is acted out on a TV gameshow called Destiny, she whips off her wig to reveal herself as a much more vulnerable character as she confesses her love for Bassanio. In the trial scene, in male disguise, she leads the antisemitic abuse of Shylock in terrifying style. To be a convincing male, she turns into an abuser herself. But the real power of Fielding's interpretation, and of the play, comes in the final scene. Shakespeare's plot device of a gold ring given by Portia to Bassanio as an eternal love token, but surrendered by him to Portia in disguise, is far from original. But here it serves to reveal character; the breach of faith Portia discovers sends her into a psychological tailspin and she stumbles around the stage, desperately clutching her discarded blonde wig to the soundtrack of Elvis singing 'Are You Lonesome Tonight?' Fielding's ability to manage this shape-shifting role is uncanny.
Subtlety isn't the first word that springs to mind during Goold's productions. But while the surface is brash and deliberately over the top, the characterisation is finely tuned. There is just enough of a hint of a homoerotic relationship between Bassanio and Antonio to disturb Portia's equilibrium; we feel the whole trial scene has been just as traumatic and damaging for her as for everyone else. While there is broad comedy in the Belmont game show scenes involving unsuitable suitors for Portia's hand in marriage, the mood changes sharply when the red neon ON AIR signs are switched off and Bassanio appears. Tom Weston-Jones as Bassanio retains the character's enigmatic motivations, leaving us in some doubt whether he is marrying Portia for love or for money.
Tom Scutt's spectacular design, which places the opening scene on the floor of the Rialto casino, has survived the transition from the big thrust stage of Stratford to the smaller area of the Almeida, and works even better. Las Vegas, like Renaissance Venice, becomes a place where everything is fake except money. As the play progresses, disguises and costumes are progressively unpeeled. While Portia takes off her wig, Shylock discards his hairpiece as his world unravels.