THEATRE / Star of David: Paul Taylor on the RSC's Venetian double offering at Stratford

THE NEWS that Antonio's ships have foundered comes through on a fax machine in the new hi-tech Merchant of Venice at Stratford. The director, David Thacker, has shifted the Venetian scenes to a modern merchant-banking milieu, replete with open-plan multi- level offices, sharp-suited yuppies glued to their computer screens, and loutish wine bars. Now, as is well known, people in the City would never dream of charging interest on loans - they'd rather die first - so it stands to reason that they would look down their noses at types like Shylock to whom usury is a way of life.

Attempts to update The Merchant are almost bound to run into snags and contradictions of this kind, so it's much to the credit of Thacker's production and more especially to David Calder's splendid Shylock that they persuade you it's worth making the necessary adjustments. A humorous, genial, broadly assimilated Jew (whose ethnic origins only surface at first in little displays of shrugging self-mockery), this Shylock makes the 'pound of flesh' clause sound like a fanciful, patently unserious joke that has the perverse effect of reassuring Clifford Rose's Antonio. It's only with the defection of his daughter and the mockery of his grief by a herd of boorish masked revellers that Calder's Shylock starts to don the trappings of his tribe. Turning intransigent revenger, he even marks out in felt-tip the area of Antonio's exposed flesh he intends to lop. In this production, it's not just the Christians who are appalled. Shylock's fellow Jew, Tubal, is driven to disown him.

It may be hard to warm to her taste in decor (Belmont is a cheerless screen of abstract squares), but just about everything else is winning about Penny Downie's luminously intelligent Portia. She is impressive in each of the heroine's various phases, but I particularly liked the mischievous balance she achieved between the pointed and the playful in the ring-trick in the final act. It's a rare Bassanio who can convince you he deserves this woman. Owen Teale's hunky but shallow-seeming hero is no exception.

In Stratford now there's a double dose of news from the Rialto (or thereabouts). At the Swan, Goldoni's The Venetian Twins is being given an uproarious going-over in Michael Bogdanov's boisterous, high- spirited production. Early on, the show judders to a halt when a punter in the stalls is accidentally stabbed to death by an umbrella and carted out amid a noisy flurry of police and ambulance people. He should count himself lucky, though, given the nerve-racking Dame Edna-like atmosphere of compulsory audience involvement that ensues. (Adulterous couples shouldn't sit in the front row.)

David Troughton does some breathtaking quick-changes in his hilarious double as the pair of twins (a George Formby North Country bumpkin and a louche, self-satisfied roue) who, in the course of a chaotic day, keep being mistaken for one another. At one point, he has to exit soaked, plastered in spaghetti and refuse, and with a banana-skin sprouting limply from his crotch, swiftly return cleaned up and changed as the other brother, and then come straight back on again in the original disarray. What a life (especially on matinee days). In a disturbing departure from the norm, the comic ending of the play is blighted by the death of one of the twins and you could argue that by sending up commedia conventions throughout, Bogdanov slightly blunts the shock effect. But Ranjit Bolt's translation is as sparky as the cast, and it's to be hoped that the RSC is paying Troughton double-time.

'The Merchant of Venice' and 'The Venetian Twins': in rep at the RST and the Swan (box-office 0789 295623)

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