When I spoke to RSC 18-25 summer school students about The Two Gentlemen of Verona back in August, we talked about genre and some of them were surprised that The Merchant of Venice was listed as a comedy in the First Folio. They were convinced it was a tragedy. It seems the RSC agree. As I noted in a blog post back in early September, the RSC are promoting The Merchant of Venice and Othello – two plays from their 2015 summer season – as ‘Venetian tragedies’. Another promotional blurb refers to the two plays as ‘uncompromising tragedies‘. I’m not sure what I’d call Merchant, but it doesn’t seem to be a tragedy in the same way as Othello, does it? Nonetheless, this RSC rhetoric was ringing in my head as I travelled to the Almeida to see Rupert Goold reprise his 2011 RSC Merchant of Venice. His production, set in Vegas, might also be called a tragedy, though I’m not sure if it was advertised as one. There are two elements to Goold’s ‘tragedy’. On the one hand, there is the tragedy of Shylock and on the other, of Portia.
The characterization of Portia, assisted by Sussanah Fielding’s extraordinary performance, is by far the most striking and interesting aspect of the production. Portia, portrayed as a southern belle, is a reluctant reality TV hostess who, ingeniously, fronts a gameshow called ‘Destiny’ in which a series of suitors arrive to try and win her hand in marriage. She is, for the most part, an appealing and sympathetic character: in the reality TV scenes she displays a winning comic wittiness, in first her interactions with her husband, Bassanio, she takes off the blond wig and the high-heeled perspex shoes and reveals a surprising and affecting vulnerability, and in the trial scene, she saves Antonio with her quick-witted arguments. Moments of apparent racism – she is grateful that the Prince of Morocco chose the wrong casket and she pursues Shylock’s demise with anti-Semitic vindictiveness – do not, on balance, stop the audience from sympathizing with her final fate, which is to fall into a state of breakdown at the thought of her husband loving Antonio: she totters on a single high-heel and speaks her lines as if half in a trance. Here then, is a touching, personal, domestic tragedy.
If Portia’s characterization is the brilliant and unexpected invention of the production, Shylock’s is disappointingly, and even, at times, offensively, conventional. Ian McDiarmid, replaced Patrick Stewart from the original RSC run, but, as in the earlier production, his Shylock became increasingly ostentatiously Jewish. When claiming his pound of flesh, Shylock enters wearing a yarmulke. There were differences between the way the two productions handled the character, but, in both cases, Shylock’s deepest cruelty was associated, unfortunately and unnecessarily, with his religion. The production does strive to show the abuse meted out to Shylock – he leaves the stage on his hands and knees having being spat at and having had his yarmulke taken from his head, all while Gratiano films the incident on his phone – but the production seems far more interested in Portia, than Shylock and the
ugliness of that scene becomes obscured by the final revelation of Portia’s unhappiness. The new RSC Merchant will almost certainly not match the brilliant Portia of Goold/Fielding’s creation, but it is hoped they do a better job with their Shylock.