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The Merchant of Venice (Almeida Theatre)

February 4, 2015

Seen at the afternoon performance on 10th January 2015.

First theatre visit of the year for me, and expecting Venice, Italy, I got, well… the Venice Hotel and Casino, Las Vegas. Complete with Elvis to start the show. “Luck truly is a Lady” for anyone able to obtain ticket to this run of the Rupert Goold production first done by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2011.

A modern setting, interpolation of a TV game-show and the back catalogue of one of the greatest musical artists ever, and a cast who not only deliver the dialogue but have fun doing so combine to make this one of the most entertaining Shakespearian experience I’ve had since a twelfth night I’m not discussing further…

Ian McDiarmid’s awesomely avaricious, granite sense of conscience and punctilious Shylock possibly settle forever for me that this play is about anti-Semitism, rather than is inherently anti-Semitic. The insults cut deep, yet Goold’s direction ensures that each is given a reason, and the horrific culmination (even more impactful for those, like me, very close to where it happens) leaves audiences in no doubt that racial understanding is the only way forward and that the perpetrators are, in fact, the guiltier party.

Sharing the acting honours, much discussed Susannah Fielding’s Portia is indeed a treat to choose a lead box for. Her “Destiny” game-show – and outrageously attired contestants – are a highlight, and my, doesn’t she look amazing when she turns to medical law. An original delivery of the most famous speech, and a wonderfully unpredictable yet sound logic are unforgettable.

Scott Handy makes the most of Antonio, his physical reaction to Shylock’s debt-collecting another unrepeatable moment. A controlled Tom Weston-Jones (Bassanio) is lucky to have such a friend.

Suporting roles are well done too. Jamie Beamish’s Gobbo / Elvis is fun, while Anthony Welsh (Gratiano) has to be on the list of any casting director for future classical work.

For the ladies, Caroline Martin is a fine Jessica, growing in stature as the production progresses. As side-kick to Portia, Emily Plumtree’s Nerissa more than holds her own, while dippy Stephanie (Rebecca Brewer) and versatile Concience (Merry Holden) also enchanted a 12 year old boy seated further along my row with their additional show-girl turns. Can’t think why…

The only criticism has to be the lack of funds to allow a more versatile set. Being stuck with the gaudy hotel for all scenes requires the audience to work harder at times to place the action. Mostly, it doesn’t matter, but were this to head where it deserves – into the West End – it’s a problem which may need solving.

Still, as an introduction to both the Bard and just how phenomenal a well-drilled troupe of outstandingly talented actors can be, those who have tickets have found the golden box-office for sure.

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