This will always be a very special play to me because it was the first Shakespeare play that my English teacher, Mr Birks, taught me. Up until then, I didn't "get" Shakespeare. I couldn't understand the language. Then Mr Birks taught us The Merchant of Venice. It was a revelation.
Mr Birks showed me that all you had to do was invest a bit of time "tuning in" to the language. Then it was really easy to follow. And the language ... oh my God! So beautiful and powerful and moving. And then there were the plots and the characters. The whole of human existence and the human condition was in Shakespeare. It just opened up a whole new world to me. I have never looked back.
Yesterday I saw the RSC's production of The Merchant of Venice, starring Patrick Stewart as Shylock. I wanted to see it because The Merchant of Venice is one of my favourite plays and I thought Patrick Stewart would be excellent as Shylock. In preparation, I saw the NT's production, starring Henry Goodman as Shylock the night before.
To cut a long story short, I hated the RSC production. It was a travesty. It was truly awful.
So what was wrong with it?
They had set it in modern-day Las Vegas. Let me say upfront that I have no problem with modern-day versions of classic plays and books if they are done well - I adore Sherlock after all; and One Man, Two Guvnors; and Nick Hytner's Man of Mode; and I am sure Ralph Fiennes's modern-day version of Coriolanus will be outstanding. The National's version of The Merchant of Venice which I think is brilliant is itself set in the 1930s. However, the RSC version did not work at all.
Portia, who should be an intelligent and independent young woman, was a blonde bimbo - worse than a Southern Belle. If the actress had played her as Scartlett O'Hara, with intelligence, independence, fire and spirit, that would have been something. She played her as a fool. Even when she plays the doctor, she plays her as someone who has no clue what she is doing, and as though she is completely out of her depth - she does not know who Antonio is or who Shylock is. So Portia emerges in this production as stupid - in Shakespeare's original she is very far from that.
The Prince of Morocco was played as a brainless boxer. Yes Morocco is arrogant but he is supposed to be a Prince. He should have some level of dignity and he should be regal. To play him as a brainless boxer was, quite simply, the most offensive portrayal of Morocco I have ever seen. It played to all the worst stereotypes about Black men. I found it insulting and offensive.
They had Elvis as Launcelot Gobbo which did not work for me at all. This made the whole production a complete farce - which it is not supposed to be at all. It contains some serious themes and these need to be treated with respect, not as a joke. This play is too serious to be turned into a musical.
I felt really sorry for Richard Riddell, playing Bassanio. He was excellent but was stuck in this nightmare production.
So did I like anything about the play? I liked Antonio dressed in an orange Guantanamo Bay jumpsuit and his clear and painful fear as Shylock approched him with his knife and in the moment before the cutting.
The National's version, by contrast, was outstanding. I saw it live, but it was great to revisit it, to refresh my memory. Henry Goodman as Shylock is mind-blowingly good. He nails the part. He is 100% authentically Jewish but also 100% sympathetic. Your heart really goes out to him, as an outsider and an alien, trying to make his way in Christian society. He kills off the accusations once and for all that this play is anti-Semitic. It is not, if Shylock is played in the right way, as Henry Goodman does. Patrick Stewart does not get anywhere near Henry's performance.
Why do I like The Merchant of Venice so much?
It talks about being an alien and an outsider - in this case, a Jew in Christian society. Shylock, although he does not have that much stage time, is definitely the star of the show and has all the best lines. His key speeches show his humanity. He is a living, breathing human being, with feelings and emotions just like everyone else. He is a human, not a cur. Played the right way, as Henry does, the play shows why Shylock ended up filled with hatred and revenge - because of the way he was treated by Christian society. Shylock can be a sympathetic character, who you empathise with and feel for. Eventually, Shylock is consumed with hate at his unfair treatment and tries to exact revenge. His attempt ultimately fails but you feel for him. With these important themes at play, it is criminal to turn this play into a musical, a farce or a joke. It needs to be treated seriously and with respect.
So the winner of the best version is (drum roll please!) ... The National.
No competition. It is like comparing the sun (NT) to pitch black (RSC).
Buy the National Theatre version, with Henry Goodman as Shylock, here (ironically at the RSC shop!):http://www.rsc.org.uk/shop/browse/item.aspx?cid=1231bc0f-4a91-489f-ae48-569b080d1d92&catcode=63034
or here (there are cheap new version available from sellers other than Amazon):http://www.amazon.co.uk/Merchant-Venice-Henry-Goodman-DVD/dp/B0000BZNJS/ref=sr_1_5?ie=UTF8&qid=1314805368&sr=8-5
My overall view of the RSC is that they have a state of the art theatre and a brilliant shop but the quality of the productions that they put on there just aren't up to scratch. Sorry RSC!