There are few directors who have the ability to divide audiences as much as Rupert Goold. It has become standard for his reinterpretations to brim with ideas and display an exuberance that can irktraditionalists as much as they excite those who believe a play to be a living text.
His production of The Merchant of Venice, reaching the Almeida after a season in Stratford, does more than most to alienate, and even his most fervent supporters reach the interval trying to grasp at the point of transferring the play from renaissance Venice to 20th century Las Vegas.
We must consider the play one of Shakespeare’s most problematic. Any director must think through how it can be staged effectively and it is a cop-out to provide a traditional setting in order to avoid the context that the modern world brings to how we must approach Shylock and his humiliation. It is clear what may have been acceptable for Elizabethan audiences will not play as well to the modern theatre goer.
As much as Shakespearian scholars can claim there is more to the interpretation of Venetian Jewry than may be initially apparent, it is hard to avoid the grubbiness with which he portrays Shylock debasement and Jessica’s elopement with Lorenzo. As much as we can argue that art should live in a vacuum it is impossible to watch the play without holding an awareness of what has happened in the 20thcentury.
It is also a structurally difficult play that ends entirely peculiarly. It is, technically, a comedy but it fails to fulfil many of the rules that we might associate with Elizabethan comedies. It doesn’t end in a wedding and rather than finishing with the duke bringing order to the chaos, it ends with Gratiano, a lower character, making a rather inelegant ribald remark about his betrothed.
Well Goold makes the decision to turn the play on its head, and leaves us with an ending so bleak, so suggestive of storm clouds gathering, that if not quite being equal to the great tragedies it is at least worthy of an HBO series.
As the final curtain descends we are left with three couples who, in destroying Shylock, have destroyed themselves. The audience are left with Bassanio’s question to Shylock, ‘Do all men kill the things they do not love?’ [IV.i] to mull over. In their single-minded pursuit of what they thought they desired they have ultimately left themselves a future built on lies and deceit. The warning on Portia’s caskets that ‘who chooseth me shall get as much as he deserves‘ returns to us with a startling relevance.