Friday, 20 May 2011

The Merchant of Las Vegas

Two or three weeks ago I went over to Stratford to hear Patrick Stewart talk about playing Shylock.  In many respects the discussion was general, partly because he is coming to the role this year for the fifth time, but also because the current production, which had its press night earlier this week, has been shrouded in mystery and the director, Rupert Goold, was very keen that the overall concept of the production shouldn't get out too soon.  As you can imagine that set all of us off trying to find out what we were going to be watching and it wasn't long before someone managed to discover that shock horror the central setting was a casino in Las Vegas.  I'll pause while you all recoil in dismay.

Certainly, all the members of my two Shakespeare classes took several deep breaths before letting me know in no uncertain terms what they thought of the idea.  I have to admit that I wasn't exactly cheering from the gallery myself, although I could see certain similarities between the financial situations explored in the play and the careless way in which money is won and lost in the world of the multimillion Las Vegas gambler.  However, on Monday one of class went to see a preview and the following morning I got an e-mail quite simply raving about it, saying it was the best production of the play she had ever seen and that once she'd got used to the idea she thought the concept was sheer brilliance.

So, it was with a great deal of interest that I went over to Stratford on Wednesday to hear Rupert Goold talk about the play and explain why he'd taken the decision not only to set it in America, but also to play it in American accents.  Of course, there is the argument that East Coast American vowels are closer to those of the Elizabethans than are current English ones and that such a decision makes the speech more authentic, but what was more interesting was what he had to say about the stress patterns involved and how the American speech rhythms emphasise the verse forms far more than the British rhythms do.  I have to admit that I hadn't thought about that before, but once he demonstrated it was easy to see what he was talking about, especially where there is some form of antithesis being evoked.  Try doing 'to be or not to be' in an American accent and you'll see what I mean.  Goold also cited other highly successful productions of the play that have been set in very specific places.  There was one situated in Weimar Germany and another located in the time and location of the early Rothschilds.  In siting the play in the gambling capital of the world he has been able to emphasise the risks that both our own society and that of many of Shakespeare's contemporaries have been prepared to take with money - often, it should be said, with other people's money.

And of course, there is that other great financial parallel - rising inflation and its social consequences.  In medieval England prices had remained pretty much stable for three hundred years, but in the sixteenth century inflation was rampant and by the time this play was written the cost of living had doubled in a matter of years.  Lacking twenty-four hour news programmes to analyse the situation for them, the English were understandably annoyed (actually they would probably have been even more annoyed if they had had twenty-four hour analysis) and their answer was all too often to blame the problem on the foreigners coming into the country, who were, as they saw it, taking their jobs and their wages.  If you think the cry of 'British jobs for British workers' is a twenty-first century slogan, think again.  In the early 1590s the pamphleteers were doing great business raising feelings against Flemish workers in London in just the same way as voices are raised about EU immigration today.  It's easy to see both where the impulse behind the Shylock situation came from and its modern day parallels.

By the time Goold had got this far, and with Val's ringing endorsements in my ear, I was beginning to be won over and the next point he made tipped the scales completely in his favour.  He noted that this is a play that has no character in it that you can actually like and this is the first time that I have come across someone else who has the same problems that I do with Portia.  Now, I know that Portia gets a raw deal from her father.  In this production the whole business with the caskets is turned into a game show.  Choose the right box and get the beautiful girl - and, of course, the money that goes with her!  That's a production choice which seems to me to sum up the whole situation nicely.  However, her bad luck in the matter of fathers can't hide the fact that Portia is as ardent a racist as any of them.  Look at the trial scene closely some time.  She knows Shylock's name and yet she refers to him all the time as 'Jew', you can hear the contempt not simply for the individual, but for his entire race, and it is Portia who, having 'deprived' Shylock of his pound of flesh, suddenly ratchets proceedings up a notch with her 'Tarry Jew, the law hath yet another hold on you'.  She is enjoying this.  There were whispers of discontent in the audience on Wednesday at this point, but I was silently cheering.  I have always avoided directing The Merchant not because of Shylock and the antisemitic issues, but because I have never known what to do with Portia or, perhaps it would be truer to say, because I have never had the courage to play her as I have wanted to and has Goold clearly has taken the risk of doing.

So, all in all this looks set fair to be a very interesting theatrical experience indeed.  Press night was Thursday and the only review I've seen was very positive.  Unfortunately, I'm not seeing it until August, so it will be sometime before I can come back and report here on what I find.  If anyone else is going sooner then I would be fascinated to hear what you think.  

1 comment:

  1. Since I always do the "to be or not to be" and any Shakespeare in an American accent, I will have to listen to a British one and discover the difference ;) The play sounds quite interesting and Vegas seems a perfect setting when you think about it. Looking forward to hearing more details when you see it in August!