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The Merchant of Venice :Shakespeare’s Shylock, has relocated to Las Vegas
By Judi Herman

Judi Herman is a freelance writer, broadcaster and producer, working mainly for BBC Radio World Service and the BBC’s main UK speech network, [Radio 4]. She specialises in making radio features on arts and entertainment, religion, education, travel and human-interest stories. Among programmes to which she contributes regularly are the World Service Arts and Entertainment MagazineThe Strand, the World Service Heart and Soul Series and Radio Four’s flagship magazine programme Woman’s Hour. She also writes regular theatre reviews for the influential UK theatre website Whatsonstage.com and is a guest performing arts lecturer at Middlesex University Judi has written several stage shows, including How the West End Was Won, a show celebrating Jewish life in the West End of London, commissioned to accompany the London Jewish Museum's exhibition Living Up West; and Stones of Kolin, a play with music, charting six hundred years of Jewish life in a small Czech town, performed in both London and Kolin in the Czech Republic. She’s also worked in Public Relations, including theatre PR, so she reckons she knows the theatre business from more sides than most! Judi lives near London with Steve, her husband of thirty four years. They have a newly-married son and a daughter – and the family is completed by a Bedlington Terrier called Bertie! E-mail: judi_herman@hotmail.com  

Judi Herman goes to the brand new Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford to find Patrick Stewart, as Shakespeare’s Shylock, has relocated to Las Vegas ...

When I entered “Jewish community Las Vegas” into my search engine, I found a site called “Jewish Vegas” with a big Star of David in its logo. There I read that “Las Vegas is the fastest growing Jewish Community in the United States, with over 70,000 Jews, nineteen Synagogues, many Jewish Organizations, Jewish Delis and Kosher Restaurants and two Jewish newspapers”. Moreover apparently “Thousands of Jews relocate to Las Vegas every year”.

I wonder did director Rupert Goold check out “Jewish Vegas” when he decided that Shakespeare’s Shylock would be one of the Jews relocating to Vegas? For Goold’s account of Vegas is a much less welcoming place. Shylock and his co-religionist and confidant Tubal are comfortably off of course, but scarcely comfortable in the snidely anti-Semitic society that surrounds them. For wherever directors relocate The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare’s account of anti-Semitism – or anti-Semitic play - should make uncomfortable viewing for Jew and non Jew alike.

Goold’s Vegas setting certainly makes for a big brash fun production. But the discomfiture is, if anything, all the greater, by contrast. The show – and this is certainly an evening of show and spectacle – opens with a sort of floorshow cabaret of a casino (ambitious and wonderfully realized design by Tom Scutt), complete with glamorous, scantily clad showgirls, glittering slot machines and gaming tables and a comically louche Elvis impersonator (Jamie Beamish), who turns out to be Launcelot Gobbo, Shylock’s servant, presumably moonlighting, doing a turn.

And Portia’s eyrie in Belmont offers no refuge from the brash spectacle, for Susannah Fielding’s country and western style Portia, complete with wig of blonde ringlets, is locked into hosting a cruel Reality TV game-show on which the watching millions follow the progress of her suitors, as they agonise over the choice of casket that will bring them married bliss with her or condemn them to celibacy for life. (Do I detect a flaw in the argument here? For with only three permutations, surely those watching millions are ahead of the game after the first two “programmes”. And unless all future potential contestants are locked up with no access to TV (and this show would make it on to Youtube, no problem!), they’d soon be able to work out which casket to go for …)

The discomfiture kicks in of course, when Patrick Stewart’s worldly and coolly calculating Shylock comes face to face with the Christians, though there is no doubt that he gives as good – or as bad - as he gets. And Portia’s casual racism, evident in her contempt for her suitors from Morocco and Spain, is more than equal to the prejudice exhibited by wide-boy Gratiano (Howard Charles), brash chancer Bassanio (Richard Riddell) and Scott Handy’s mellifluous, febrile Antonio.

The play must always be especially uncomfortable viewing for Jewish audience members. Antonio and Bassanio may address Shylock by name when they want something from him, but mainly he is referred to as ‘the Jew’ (and notably by Antonio, as ‘the devil’) and in the trial scene to his face as ‘Jew’.

Here the discomfiture is magnified when the suave secular banker that Patrick Stewart presents at first, stalks into the Duke’s sinister underground court not just carrying a pair of scales for his gory weigh in, but wrapped in an imposing prayer shawl. Why does he suddenly decide to embrace religious trappings, just as he takes up the terrifying knife with which he clearly intends to exact his barbaric surety from Antonio (hung from a meat hook, stripped to the waist in his Guantanamo-style orange jumpsuit)?

It can be argued that Shakespeare does not intend to give his audience much incentive to have sympathy for Shylock. There are just those few lines, when he reveals his anguish at his daughter’s heedless exchange for a pet monkey of his late wife’s ring

“It was my turquoise. I had it of Leah when I was a bachelor.
I would not have given it for a wilderness of monkeys”

Stewart takes them well, but they count for little once that court scene is in full swing. But perhaps that is true to Shakespeare’s intentions. And Stewart does stay true to the prayer shawl motif, discarding it on the floor when he is forced to become a Christian.

As for Shylock’s daughter Jessica, a determined young woman, who may have evaded emotional damage from her austere upbringing, in Caroline Martin’s strong performance, her future with as Lorenzo’s converted wife looks rosier than poor Portia’s with the evidently bisexual Bassanio, whom she will probably always have to share with the eponymous Merchant whose life she has saved.

Go and see this for the daring of the concept and the glitzy fun of its execution – and to see what happens when Shakespeare’s verse and prose is uttered in a gallimaufry of American accents (company text and voice work by Jacquie Crago, additional dialect by Richard Ryder). Go to revel in the glorious new theatre building which reproduces and improves upon the wonderfully inclusive thrust stage and three tiers of the temporary Courtyard Theatre it replaces. But don’t expect to be tempted to relocate to Goold’s Vegas …

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The Merchant of Venice continues in repertory at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford upon Avon, UK until 26 September. Book online at www.rsc.org.uk  (telephone 0044 (0)844 800 1100).
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Related Links:

  • Read additional reviews by Judi Herman
  • Read more on The Merchant of Venice
  • F. Murray Abraham offers a different interpretation of the Jewish banker
  • Al Pacino, now on stage at Shakespeare in the Park

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  • Judi Herman

    William Shakespeare (1564-1616)

    Patrick Stewart (Shylock)

    Rebecca Brewer (Lady), Jamie Beamish (Launcelot Gobbo), Madeline Appiah (Lady)

    Scott Handy (Antonio), Patrick Stewart (Shylock)

    Jason Morell (Prince of Arragon)

    Patrick Stewart (Shylock) Photographer: Ellie Kurttz/RSC

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