by: Annina Melliger
Q: What do The Merchant of Venice, Pinocchio and Toy Story 1 all have in common?
A: Performing puppets and decapacitated dolls: the horrors of children’s nightmares.
Rupert Goold’s production of one of Shakespeare’s most complex and difficult plays gives an uncanny sense of bleak darkness to the play, nothing anyone could expect when the spectacle begins. It is certainly not how most people would interpret the Spanish word for meadows. In any case, as soon as the concept was first announced to be Las Vegas, I was quite intrigued, giddy to see how the director would manage such a stunt.
Goold’s vision, translated onto the stage, was quite literally breathtaking; from the very first moment the cast starts to break it down to the song “Viva, Las Vegas”, the play grabs your full attention. Any possible blip in the technical booth will go unnoticed because of how absorbed you are. In fact, you will be so mesmerised by the show and bright lights that you will at times completely forget you are in theater. The effect is comparable to that of a film, with all the sounds and lights and music, underscored by a fantastic golden set and high-paced plot, being rolled in front of your eyes, only this is truly in 3D, and you are a part of it. When the Glee version of “Don’t Stop Believing” comes on, you may find yourself singing along, but careful: an unexpected twist will abruptly take your breath away.
Another surprising element in the production was the trial scene’s intensity. This bone-chilling, hair-raising experience with Scott Handy as Antonio was truly something to behold. His arms chained and strung above his head, streams of sweat trickling down his half-exposed body, he maintained, for an entire minute, a shaking as violent as a twig caught in a cyclone: Although highly impressive, it was indeed unfortunate only to see his back during the ordeal. Next time, Antonio must be placed upstage center, so everyone can see the dread on his face.
The reason for his fear, the infamous Shylock, played by the acclaimed Patrick Stewart, made a wonderful appearance as the wealthy yet scorned outsider who is only trying to get what is rightfully his. Interestingly enough, the imagination prompts the idea of an aging grandfather, who finally realizes he is not as vital or as influential as he used to be, and desperately tries to hold on to the power he can. It can be no wonder that the sad character evoked a feeling of pity from the audience when he was spat on after his humiliating defeat in court. The fact that his was the only British accent in a plethora of American accents made his position as foreigner even more pronounced.
Although the many different accents deserve a standing ovation, the choice of casting seemed slightly infelicitous. In the beginning, Portia, played by Susannah Fielding, was the definition of a rich, spoiled, plastic blonde bimbo who is essentially selling herself as a bride on her own TV-show called Destiny.
Despite what is said in Shakespeare’s script, she tends to reflect the mind-set of a sensible brunette, so this particular portrayal of the character was unappealing from the offset. Luckily, half way through the story, you will sigh in relief when she takes off her mile-high shoes and wig in front of Bassanio to reveal a dark set of locks underneath. This act of vulnerability appears to be her true self; the rest is all show.
What was unfathomable, then, was the reasoning behind the very last scene. Goold trumped himself again by presenting this wild, once-in-a-lifetime rollercoaster ride; the masterpiece should have crescendoed to one last emotional high. Instead, it ended on a sour note. What started out as very nice character development on Portia’s part, going from blonde to legally brunette, ended in the last minute with her as a suffering girl who saw that her beloved might not love her back. The play’s finale has Bassanio sitting on the edge, paying no heed to his wife, who is alone in the middle of the stage, dancing on one shoe and swinging her wig above her head. She sets off as a marionette in the show biz of Vegas, and takes her leave as a broken Barbie doll, torn between the present torture and her past emptiness. The last moments of The Merchant of Venice are about not getting all that you hope for or desire. In that respect, I share Portia’s Destiny.
(All images from “The Merchant of Venice: Production Photos.” Royal Shakespeare Company. 2011. Accessed Dec. 2011. Web.)