A short while ago Rupert Goold transplanted Prospero’s isle to an Arctic ice floe.
A short while ago Rupert Goold transplanted Prospero’s isle to an Arctic ice floe. His latest hazard as theatrical travel agent is to whisk Antonio and Shylock off to Las Vegas. The hurly-burly of a modern casino turns out to be a buzzy metaphor for the high stakes for which everyone’s playing in The Merchant of Venice. There actually is a super-casino in Venice — bizarrely located in the very palazzo on the Grand Canal where Wagner died — but it’s much more fun for Goold to relocate to the US. This also allows Portia to star as hostess of a television game show called Destiny in which she herself is the delectably cute Barbie-doll prize (a superlative Stratford debut for Susannah Fielding, as no less for Emily Plumtree’s Nerissa).
Overlooking the odd reference to the Rialto, it’s amazing how well this works with Shakespeare’s text. You can only applaud the transformation of the clown Lancelot Gobbo into an Elvis impersonator (the splendid Jamie Beamish) who becomes a major player in this high-energy show, as does Howard Charles’s irresistible Gratiano. On the downside you have to get along with some shaky accents, and may groan for Antonio in yet another Guantanamo jumpsuit at his trial, but the touch of Goold and his excellent designer Tom Scutt is sufficiently tongue-in-cheek to pull off an Americanisation of The Merchant that yields at least one unexpectedly rich reward.
This is done by drawing out the ‘be careful what you wish for’ message ingrained in the play. Goold knows exactly when to calm the high-jinks and focus on the unhappy people that lie beneath the razzmatazz. Once the game show is ‘off air’ and Portia’s kicked off her Lady Peep slings, she’s struggling to relate to the boringly nondescript Bassanio she finds she’s won. It’s a theme that carries powerfully through into the superbly directed closing scenes. Here, in a physical juxtaposition that says it all, Portia finds herself at the centre of a sofa, uncomfortably sandwiched between the Antonio she’s saved from the knife and a sexually ambivalent husband who’s been the cause of everyone’s trouble.
Patrick Stewart’s Shylock is a beautifully observed portrait of a Wall Street property baron, at first quietly confident of his wealth and defusing antipathy for his mannerless Christian abusers with wry humour. It’s remorse for the unanticipated loss of Jessica (strangely presented as a bespectacled bluestocking who’s only been allowed a dull lightbulb to read by) that brings him down, firing up his anger and precipitating the insistence upon his bond and consequent ruin. But at present Stewart seems to be so scrupulously avoiding stereotypical caricature that you have to wait until the trial scene for him to show his power and hold the stage.
To the Swan comes Philip Massinger’s The City Madam, an outrageous comedy first performed in 1632 by Shakespeare’s former company, the King’s Men. In director Dominic Hill’s very welcome Stratford debut it comes across like a cartoon by Rowlandson sprung to vibrant life.
The ‘Madam’ herself (Sara Crowe) is the feather-brained wife of Sir John Frugal (Christopher Godwin), a merchant who’s prospered on the back of unscrupulous dealing. Wealth has bought him a knighthood and madam hopes that an earldom won’t be far behind. Two daughters, preposterously coiffed and rouged, are up for sale, the bidders being an effete aristo and a blunt, self-made Yorkshireman. The joker in the pack is Frugal’s younger brother, Luke, a prodigal who’s squandered his inheritance and is patronised as a servant in Frugal’s household. His revenge and its consequences are the story.
Upon a sudden whim, Luke launches into a mischievous speech upbraiding his Croesus of an elder brother. Would it not be in the interest of his immortal soul to forgive his debtors and hence pass through the eye of the needle? Frugal somewhat astonishingly agrees, withdraws into a monastery, and bequeaths his wealth to Luke. At first Luke seems bent on humbling the hoity-toity ladies and spreading a gospel of Christian charity. But in next to no time himself succumbs to the poison of riches.
This is a perfect role for Jo Stone-Fewings who lights up the stage with his sly energy, juggling the contraries in Luke and keeping you guessing about his motives. There’s a great deal of Mephisto, the seemingly evil force that’s actually engendering good, in the character and Stone-Fewings revels in it all. One hilarious scene follows another until pride and greed have been chastised, new money and old equally exposed as morally bankrupt.
It’s a rare pleasure at Stratford to hear words and voices as uninhibitedly projected as they are here by Stone-Fewings, Nicholas Day’s ripe-plum aristo Lord Lacy, Felix Hayes’s self-made Yorkshireman, Mr Plenty, and Christopher Ettridge’s effortlesly superior Steward. The whole show, which includes an exquisite puppet enactment of Orpheus and Eurydice, is a delight.