The RSC’s most recent take on The Merchant of Venice presents its melting pot of cultures and characters on a golden-brick stage where anti-Semitic behaviour simmers beneath the shiny surface.
Shakespeare’s play is centred on Portia and the three caskets determining her marital fate, should one of her wealthy suitors select the one enclosing her picture.
Driven by ambition, Bassanio is determined he will be named her husband and so asks Antonio for a loan. As a result, merchant Antonio borrows from Jewish money lender Shylock who subsequently decrees that failure to repay the debt by an agreed date will entitle him to a pound of Antonio’s flesh.
The bond and its looming deadline in turn give rise to a series of dramatic exchanges and tense altercations from which no character emerges clear cut. Patsy Ferran as Portia was quippy and quick-witted, confident and commanding in the trial scene when Antonio has to pay up.
Jamie Ballard’s Antonio sobs quite remarkably on cue, his character collapsing into hysterics when Shylock approaches, his knife glinting gold.
The play flashes back and forth between comedy and tragedy, adding further unease to the scenes in which barbed insults are spat at Shylock when a joke has been uttered only moments before.
Covered in golden mirrored slabs, the stage reflecting the audience encourages some reflection on society too. Shylock is abused physically throughout the play, but it is the scene in which Launcelot is cheered on, laddishly, by his cohorts to imitate the Jewish money lender that seems all too familiar to today.
Makram J. Khoury in his RSC debut was both desperate and damning as Shylock, his final speech uttered stooped amongst the audience in the hope his appeal would ring true amongst us all.
In the meantime a silver pendulum swinging slowly in the background drew on Shakespeare’s ability to transcend a given period of time and appeal to a modern crowd, for all it sometimes seemed a touch jarring.
Likewise, the costumes and their weird mix of Neon Nikes and gleaming fabrics were somewhat out of place, which meant the vibrancy of Renaissance Venice was whole-heartedly lost.
Where Polly Findlay’s RSC production sometimes falls in its lack of fluidity and concrete location, it nonetheless provokes its contemporary audience to reflect and think. Indeed, offering a wealth of complex and well-played characters bathed in gilded light ensures this production, at times, glitters gold.