The Merchant of Venice has been transposed to all manner of locations – from the LA race riots of the early 1990s to a concentration camp where the Jewish inmates were forced to perform the play for the delectation of their guards. All the same, nothing had quite prepared one for the stimulating oddness of this RSC production, which is the latest collaboration between director Rupert Goold and Patrick Stewart, here playing the role of Shylock for the third time.
This production goes for broke in yanking the proceedings to a Las Vegas casino, surmounted by a logo depicting a micro-skirted hostess with her arms outstretched like a come-hither venal parody of the crucifixion. Few non-fully criminal places on earth could expose Christian superiority about money more vividly than this glittering excrescence in the Nevada desert. Scott Handy's excellent Antonio, a gay professional bachelor, sits lost in thought of Bassanio while around him the gaming tables pullulate with life.
The place is owned by Shylock whose servant Launcelot Gobbo (the terrific Jamie Beamish) is the resident Elvis impersonator. He gives us a quick blast of the King before the proceedings proper open and offers further numbers from the Elvis catalogue as ironic counterpoint throughout. Oh yes, this interpretation is riddled with holes. Patrick Stewart is excellent as Shylock – a powerful figure with a sly sense of humour who delights in setting up traps into which the two-faced Christians can fall. And he remains a fascinating bundle of contradictions to his last exit. But Las Vegas is not exactly renowned for anti-Semitism and, in this revised ethos for the play, would the people lower down the food chain really bait so financially crucial a figure?
The aspect I most enjoyed of The Merchant was the reinvention of Portia (super Susannah Fielding) as a Southern girl trapped by the dictates of her plutocrat father's will into playing both hostess and blonde bimbo prize on a live, never-ending TV programme called Destiny that is a cross between Blind Date and The Truman Show. Fielding is hilarious at the start in her manic flirtatiousness but there is a highly intelligent, insecure brunette under that curly peroxide wig as becomes apparent in the intense trial scene when a solution occurs to her on noticing Shylock balefully trace a cross over Antonio's bare torso without drawing blood.
The production is an audacious gamble that largely pays off.
To 26 September (0844 800 1110)