I’m back from Stratford, and my first production at the new RSC Theatre, where I managed to break a seat. It literally fell apart in my hand as I tried to push it up to let people get past me. I was whisked away into a very expensive stalls seat before I could manage to tweet about it! Not that I would have done – but the RSC didn’t know that.
To be honest, I’m a bit meh about the new theatre. It was done on the cheap, and it shows. There aren’t enough loos, and the seating is flimsy, uncomfortable and unsuitable for anyone over a size 20 – and believe me there are a lot of people who go to the RST who’d fit that description, and that number is likely to rise in the future. Worst of all, you have to pay nearly £50 (on a Saturday evening, at least) to get a seat where you really feel part of the action and can see everything significant that’s going on.
The RSC is our national artistic place of pilgrimage, and I feel genuinely saddened that the remodellers didn’t do a better job. Okay, so they put up a swanky tower, but it’s a safe swanky tower – we aren’t talking the Guggenheim or Pompideau Centre here, and I wish they’d either gone for something with that degree of boldness and flair, or done a good job restoring what they already had.
I saw The Merchant of Venice, an interesting production that substitutes Vegas for Venice, dollars for ducets and (I kid you not) Elvis for Launcelot Gobbo. The Elvis impression was actually very good. The first half is all fruit machines and television game shows, blackjack and crap. I see what they were going for with Portia – they make her into a Southern Barbie doll and the caskets rigmarole becomes a game show called Destiny. And then, when she gets the man she wants, it turns out she’s been dumbing down, and she takes off the wig and the kitten heels because she thinks she’s found someone who’ll appreciate her for herself. It turns out she’s mistaken by the end, and the wig goes back on.
It’s an astonishingly cynical play and yet it contains some of Shakespeare’s most sublime romantic poetry (I’m thinking of “How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank“). That glorious scene, which equals and maybe even surpasses the R&J balcony scene in my estimation as the most romantic in Shakespeare, is actually sandwished between a hideously cruel and disturbing trial scene ending with Shylock’s total humiliation and forced conversion, and a blazing four-handed row because the women find out the men have given away the tokens of love they swore to keep for ever. It’s almost as if Shakespeare is going out of his way to be audacious and prove that he has the genius with words to do absolutely anything:
What’s Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba,
That he should weep for her? What would he do,
Had he the motive and the cue for passion
That I have? He would drown the stage with tears
And cleave the general ear with horrid speech,
Make mad the guilty and appal the free,
Confound the ignorant, and amaze indeed
The very faculties of eyes and ears.
Hamlet, Act 2 Scene 2
(Anybody else remember David Tennant fixing his stare on the audience a few lines later and saying, “Am I a coward?”)
It sounds very odd, but the RSC did the whole Moonlit Belmont scene, complete with its discussion of sweet music, over a soft background of Elvis singing “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” and the wall between high and low culture just came crashing down. Shakespeare was doing the same as the King, he was lulling us into the illusion of a happy ending by using every device in his artistic armoury. He was to words what Murray Gold is to music.
Anyway, back to The Merchant. I don’t think it quite worked, though it got very much better in the second half and they were brave to tackle such a problematic play. I liked the way that they got it clearly across that it’s his daughter’s treachery that breaks Shylock and drives him to his revenge against Antonio. That’s another awkward thing about the final scene, and Jessica’s a thankless part, but here we saw her collapse inside when she was given the triumphant news of her father’s fate – she knows what she’s done and she’ll never live comfortably with herself afterwards, and I think that’s right. But (correct me by all means if I am wrong) I had real problems visualising Las Vegas as an anti-Semitic society, and that was something even Patrick Stewart’s performance didn’t overcome. I thought he was very much better as Claudius back in 2008, probably because that production had a much tighter ideological focus than this one.