As the bard put it so memorably, Don't You Step On My Blue Suede Shoes. This is the production where Shakespeare meets Elvis, courtesy of that master of theatrical time travel Rupert Goold. Sometimes Goold's stage instincts lead him astray and he goes spectacularly over the top, but not on this occasion; setting the play in a Las Vegas casino works brilliantly, with only a few loose ends trailing. Why? Because the vulgarity of wealth and the flawed link between money and happiness is a central theme of the play.
Goold and his designer Tom Scutt, like true Las Vegas high-rollers, bet large, and win the jackpot. The visual style of the production is breathtaking, from the moment the actors people the stage as staff and punters in a casino. There are stetsons, bermudas, baseball caps, mini-skirts and glittering high heels, and at the centre of the gambling floor, one man sitting absolutely still in the middle of the hubbub. It's the enigmatic, intense figure of the merchant Antonio, clad in a dark suit and totally focussed on the odds. Anyone who saw Goold's Enron won't be taken aback by the sheer chutzpah of his approach, but there is a lot more than exterior razzmatazz. He gives the audience a subtle reading of the play which places Portia right at the centre, so it becomes her story.
Portia's competition for a husband with the aid of three boxes is turned into a TV game show called Destiny, complete with flashing signs telling the audience when to applaud. The Belmont scenes show Portia and Nerissa poised extravagantly on a sofa like a pair of Chihuahua dogs competing at Crufts; Portia has escaped from the cast of Legally Blonde, but it's clear a girl as simperingly dumb as this one won't be going anywhere near Harvard. So far, so comic-strip; but the real strength of Goold's interpretation comes in the second half, where Portia reveals that she ain't no dumb blonde after all. Her elaborate wig comes off not just for the traditional male impersonation trick in the court scene, but to signify that her earlier persona is entirely assumed. The final scene of the play, which can be banal and predictable, suddenly comes alive as Portia realises in a flash that in marrying Bassanio, she has made a fatal mistake. Susannah Fielding, making her RSC debut, is absolutely wonderful as Portia, giving a stunning performance of great versatility. At the end of the play she is cast adrift by Bassanio and clutches desperately at her blond wig to the sound of Elvis singing Are You Lonesome Tonight?
Where does this leave the tragic figure of Shylock? Although many productions place him squarely at the centre of the play, he doesn't have to be there. Patrick Stewart plays him convincingly as a buttoned-up Jewish outsider, a devout property tycoon in the mould of the Reichmans who built Canary Wharf. Shylock doesn't have to be a sympathetic figure in himself, and Goold doesn't let him tug at our feelings for a moment. Instead, he emphasises the casual anti-semitism of the Christians. When the word Jew is spoken, even by Portia, it is spat out with contempt. And Shylock leaves the courtroom not only defeated but bearing his tormentors' spittle on his back. His prayer shawl is picked up from the floor by the janitor and bundled into a black binbag -- a terrific theatrical touch.
There are fine performances from Jamie Beamish as Launcelot Gobbo, clad in a white Elvis suit and singing the King's best tunes with gusto, and from Howard Charles as the cocky hoodlum Gratiano. Chris Jarman is an excellent Prince of Morocco (a boxer in gold shorts) and Scott Handy is very good as Antonio. To balance a Portia of this complexity, the production really needs a much stronger Bassanio; in Richard Riddell's interpretation it's never quite clear precisely why Portia has made the wrong choice by marrying him. Is he in love with Antonio, or just a money-obsessed chancer? Daniel Percival and Caroline Martin as Lorenzo and Jessica sometimes seem adrift, but that's Shakespeare's fault for not giving them enough to do in the second half of the play.
Goold's direction of the trial scene is wonderfully dramatic and full of tension; it really has the audience on the edge of their seats. The transfer to a 21st century Las Vegas courtroom would never work if it were played too realistically, but Goold sets it in a fantasy framework in which giant sides of beef are hanging upstage beyond a perspex screen. When Shylock takes out his knife and puts it to Antonio's chest, the meat-packing atmosphere lends credibility to the threat of violence.
Not everyone will like this production, in which the actors are mostly equipped with microphones and hundreds of ducats become millions of dollars. Did the Bard really talk about penthouses? Possibly not, but it doesn't matter. As a pedant and a purist who regularly insists that LESS IS MORE in the theatre, I might have hated this production, but I loved it. I have no idea whether Elvis is really alive or not, but the RSC should have another hit on its hands with this show.
The new RSC theatre with its fabulous auditorium is a big improvement on the old one, which left many of the audience stranded too far from the stage. A thrust design is in my opinion far better than a proscenium arch for staging Shakespeare, and this one seems to me close to perfection. One can quibble about the integration of the new and the old around the edges, but the theatre itself, constructed like a Roundhouse-style drum within a square outer shell, is simply breathtaking. All the RSC needs now is a proper London base for its operations that will duplicate the Stratford experience.