Monday, June 27, 2011

The Merchant of Vegas

Stage view

Well that was absolutely fabulous. It is about time that I saw a performance of Shakespeare, here in the home of the Greatest Briton. How would the English do in performing The Bard...Their Bard? Answer: extraordinarily, amazingly well. For my first Shakespeare in England I came to Stratford-Upon-Avon, William S.’s original home, and to the RSC, the Royal Shakespeare Company, in their newly refurbished theatre on the banks of the Avon. All excellent decisions. This was Shakespeare done brilliantly: a re-imagined setting, brilliant acting, and an innate empathy for the language that could probably not be equalled by anyone else anywhere else.

Jamie Beamish does Elvis. It worked, it really did.
The play? “The Merchant of Venice”. The re-imagining? Las Vegas - gambling and risk-taking and money-grubbing: geddit? It worked very well as a re-setting, even the opening with the Elvis-impersonator and his rendition of “Viva Las Vegas.” Shylock was played by Patrick Stewart, who began with the RSC in 1966 and has been playing Shakespearean roles more or less ever since. He was, if you will excuse the expression, bloody good. Portia was also brilliant: Susannah Fielding in her RSC debut. A better couple of leads you couldn’t hope for, and the rest of the big cast generally exemplary too.

One of the side-products of choosing to set the play in Las Vegas is that everyone adopted American accents (and the debt of three thousand ducats became three million dollars). Some accents were pure Brooklyn (and very good too), others - like Portia and her maid Nerrisa (Emily Plumtree) - were broad Southern. The ladies of Belmont were overseeing the stream of beaus coming to court Portia - you may recall (I didn’t - I’d forgotten most of the play) that to win the fair Portia a beau had to choose the correct casket from amongst a choice of three: lead, silver or gold. This was presented as a TV game show: “DESTINY”, as in..."the lottery of my destiny".
So funny.

Nerrisa and Portia. Truly.
Back in Venice, the Strip replaced the Rialto, but the gossip and the news and the characters worked the same. In fact, I found that having forgotten the details of the story was a great thing, because there I was watching that big dramatic moment where Shylock begins to carve his “pound of flesh” from the unfortunate merchant Antonio (who never should have made such a stupid bargain in the first place, one always feels), thinking “surely he doesn’t do it” but not being able to remember the denouement....When Portia, disguised as a judge, pipes up and says....but perhaps you have forgotten too, or haven't read or seen the play, so....  

One perhaps unusual aspect was the prominence given to the faintly (or here, not so faintly) expressed homosexual vibe between Antonio and Bassanio. Since Bassanio has just married Portia, and she has just performed heroics to save Antonio, only to realise....well, she's left as rather a tragic figure.

Patrick Stewart as Shylock
The question of anti-Semitism is confronted head-on and unflinchingly in this production, as indeed it is in the play. A very interesting article in the program says that in 1594, just about the time that Shakespeare was writing his play, the Earl of Essex had orchestrated a trumped-up conviction (for poisoning) and execution of Queen Elizabeth I’s personal physician Roderigo Lopez - who happened to be a Jew. Marlowe’s play “The Jew of Malta” was revived, under Essex’s sponsorship. It seems that Shakespeare sensed a box office opportunity. However it must be said that in “The Merchant of Venice” neither the Jews nor the Christians come out of it very well. The Christians persecute and discriminate, and there is that moving speech by Shylock “if you prick us, do we not bleed?” But Shylock himself is far from sympathetic, being willing to commit murder for revenge and apparently not having a merciful bone in his body, even remaining hard-hearted in the face of Portia’s speech about “the quality of mercy is not strained...”

Here's one review, and here's another.

The newly renovated RSC Theatre
The newly re-vamped RSC theatre is a great space. I never saw it in its old version, before the four-year renovation. The interior still retains the feel of an old-fashioned horse-shoe shaped theatre with the stage at ground level and the seats rising up around. Lots of the old features - timber and brickwork - have been retained and incorporated into the current building. Indeed some Art Deco facades and the Edwardian 600 seat Swan Theatre to the rear of the main stage were required to remain untouched. The main theatre holds 1040 - and was full on the night of my visit. I scored a wonderful Circle seat directly in front of the stage on a last minute deal. The set used a staircase - works a treat when the audience is mostly higher than the players. There were no less than eight entrance/exits, plus a trap door, which verged on overkill. The play sometimes took on the air of farce, with characters dashing in and out and off and on with precision timing. We also enjoyed a live band (screened from view by an opaque backdrop), for those big Elvis and showgirl numbers. In the second half we had a little Roy Orbison as well. All power to cast member Jamie Beamish, playing the character Launcelot Gobbo, servant to Shylock, who did double-duty as the all-singing-all-dancing showman. 

Stratford-Upon Avon

P.S. recounting the play to a friend the next day - a handsome black Londoner - his first question was "who played the Prince of Morocco?" (Answer: Chris Jarman). "I LOVE that speech", said my friend, and began it..."Mislike me not for my complexion, The shadow'd livery of the burnish'd sun...." The Prince of Morocco, having chosen the wrong casket, also gets that well-known speech beginning "All that glisters is not gold..."

Upon the Avon....
Pre-theatre I enjoyed a set menu-type meal, but of a rather superior kind, at the Rooftop Restaurant; a trip up to the top of the new tower (8 stories, lovely views across Stratford-Upon-Avon, no purpose other than to just be a tower); and a walk along the banks of the Avon to watch the swans, the barges and the rowers in the early evening. Apres-theatre I drove back about 20 kms to my digs in the pub at Moreton-In-Marsh (sounds soggy but was very Cotswolds-picturesque. The only hitch was that the GPS had a senior moment and not only led me confidently into the heart of the completely wrong village, but also sent me down a narrow steep lane that ended in a ditch. Out of which I had to reverse uphill in the dark, narrowly avoiding stone walls and the parked cars of the unsuspecting residents. I drove carefully in the dark, because earlier that evening I had stopped behind a truck which had just hit a deer, which made very messy roadkill. I finally found dear little Moreton-In-Marsh, where the pub awaited with its doors firmly locked up for the night. Rapping on the windows of the snug (as they call the bar) roused a night-watchman-type person, thank goodness. And so I am here to tell you the tale.

Just like Wm. Shakespeare, if not as literary.

The Bard.

No comments:

Post a Comment