Time Out says
Almeida boss Rupert Goold's 2011 Las Vegas-set RSC production of Shakespeare's tricky play is restaged in London with Ian McDiarmid as Shylock the moneylender.
Director Rupert Goold has proved himself the twenty-first century’s great theatrical chronicler of material excess. In productions of works like ‘Enron’ and ‘American Psycho’ he has repeatedly demonstrated how individuals who worship Mammon above all expose themselves to twists of fortune every bit as devastating as those that can be witnessed in Greek tragedy. With this ‘The Merchant of Venice’, first seen at the RSC in 2011, he sets the risk levels high, translating Shakespeare’s devastating chronicle of debt and prejudice to Las Vegas. All that glisters may not be gold, but the party carries on anyway, with bling, dancing girls, and even an Elvis impersonator as a meretricious veneer for the human tragedies that lie beneath.
Goold’s close reading of the text points up the ironies from the start. It is after an auditorium rattling performance of ‘Viva Las Vegas’ that we hear the play’s first line delivered by the merchant Antonio, ‘In sooth, I know not why I am so sad’. The sense of gilded melancholy persists, even as we are introduced to Goold’s most shocking innovation, Susannah Fielding’s brilliantly ditsy Portia, an apparition straight out of ‘Legally Blonde’. The play’s device that her suitors must choose between three caskets of gold, silver and lead is translated into the game-show ‘Destiny’, where the suitors are as comically freakish as reality TV demands.
Patrick Stewart played Shylock in the original production – here Ian McDiarmid takes on the challenge. His is a desiccated, bitter presence – his thin, scornful features clearly project the strain of dealing with years of petty yet relentless demonstrations of anti-Semitism. The performance is powerful, yet this is one of the instances in which the setting does not fully work. In Europe we are living through a period where the link between debt and anti-Semitism is becoming terrifyingly apparent once more. In America – especially Las Vegas – the connection is not so clear, so the outbursts of hatred towards Shylock seem as puzzling as they are disturbing.
The other miscalculation is the complete emptiness of the connection between Portia and Bassanio. Yes, it is a brilliant reading that Bassanio’s passion is for Antonio and not the heiress bride that he won in a game show, yet the fact that there is no chemistry at all between the characters who are normally the play’s main lovers renders large chunks of the production frustratingly brittle. The sense of what the production could have been – had Goold allowed a little more emotion into his ingenious post modern game – comes in the breathtakingly dramatic pound of flesh scene, which I have never seen staged so compellingly. And the David Lynch-style weirdness of the ending demonstrates once more Goold’s ingenuity at broadening the language of theatre through the language of film in an evening that, for all its intellectual glister, does not contain quite enough gold.