An Elvis impersonator hogs the spotlight, howling out “Viva Las Vegas” as casino girls go go dance and casino gold glitters. This remount of director Rupert Goold’s 2011 RSC production doesn’t whisper its way in, in an amplified preface to Shakespeare’s quiet opening, a sombre confession of lovesickness on the streets of Venice.
The transition makes sense. Renaissance Venice’s undeniable richness, built on centuries-old trading prowess, is replaced by Vegas’s wealth that’s built on shifting desert sands. This production has a hilarious, camp extravagance that runs on devalued currency, exposing the emptiness of the financial fixations at the heart of the play.
Director Rupert Goold has ripped through the text, mining each moment for 21st century Las Vegas meaning. His most dramatic shift is to turn Portia’s struggle to wed into a gameshow called Destiny. A ringletted Southern belle, Susannah Fielding’s Portia coyly gawps, quips and poses her way through her suitor’s trials, dressing them in ludicrous parodies of their national dress. Her archness collapses when she’s off air into a sinking weariness with her search, shared with her companion Nerissa. Against her extreme artifice, Ian McDiarmid’s heartbreakingly lost Shylock is a sad sack of a man – an outsider trying to profit from the Las Vegas glitter without ever really buying into it.
He drifts through Goold’s and designer Tom Scutt’s astonishing desert kingdom, full of mirage-like appearances through glitter curtains or through the floor. But their interpretation is so exhaustively crafted, studding the narrative with glitzy surprise after surprise, that its nuances can be lost. The eccentricities of Shylock and Jessica’s relationship, and his bizarrely baroque language, are both muted: Shylock cries “My dollars! My daughter”, his ducats long gone. Portia and Nerissa’s successful turn as male lawyers feels odd taken at face value, in a present day setting where the gap between artifice and reality is plain and recognised.
But one element that’s kept and mined for its unadulterated agonies is the scene where Shylock attempts to extract his pound of flesh from Antonio. Tom Scutt’s casino set morphs into an off-kilter cathedral, with Rick Fisher’s lighting design helping to transform its blue arches into rough-hewn stone walls, and its cheery go go girl logo into an unlikely Christ figure. Antonio’s torture trickles on like a single bead of sweat on his bare torso — and Goold doesn’t flinch from Shylock’s total humiliation, either.
Rupert Goold’s production revels in the strangeness of Shakespeare’s narrative and makes it stranger: his character’s worldliness made dreamlike unearthly. It’s incredibly satisfying for the worked-through detail that encrusts every corner of the narrative, in a tricked-out joy ride through Shakespeare’s text.