The Rose Tattoo, NT Olivier, London<br/> The Merchant of Venice, Swan, Stratford<br/>

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The Independent Culture

Tennessee Williams was obsessed with nostalgia addicts, with characters morbidly stuck in their rose-tinted memories. However, sitting through this revival of The Rose Tattoo, it is hard to dwell on anything but the future, the moment when you can head off and wash this awful, cloying show out of your hair.

Williams's ill-structured domestic drama is set in a shack near New Orleans. Zoë Wanamaker's Serefina is a struggling Sicilian immigrant who can't get over the death of her husband. She lets herself fall apart, wandering round in a filthy slip and locking up her teenage daughter, Rosa, when the girl acquires a beau.

This is meant to be a seriocomedy, but the mood swings are feeble in this unatmospheric production. Wanamaker struggles to attain any emotional depth, having to veer between Serafina's despair and a clowning comedy of Latin manners. She beats irritating cameo characters with a besom and acts farcically innocent in front of her nosey neighbours when eventually seduced by a dim but keen trucker, Darrell D'Silva's Mangiacavallo.

Both are lovable performers and some scenes spring to life. Wanamaker is irresistibly funny when slapping down D'Silva's initial chat-up lines. But he lacks predatory menace. The whole thing feels like pseudo-Lorca conflated with Broadway schmaltz, especially the appallingly cheesy chorus of cod-Sicilian gossips with a goat on a rope, accompanied by circus music.

The NT's artistic director Nicholas Hytner has written very poignantly in memory of his great friend and fellow-director Steven Pimlott who died last month. Pimlott had only just started rehearsing The Rose Tattoo and it must have been very hard for the cast to recover from this shock and for Hytner to step into his shoes.

Moving on, F Murray Abraham (formerly Salieri in the film of Amadeus) is riveting as the Jewish resident alien, Shylock, in The Merchant of Venice. In this production by the Manhattan company Tfana (Theatre for a New Audience), the Christian traders are swanky, pinstriped businessmen. They tap share prices into their BlackBerrys as they gossip about Antonio's flagging fortunes, his beloved Bassanio and the deal struck with Shylock. The fiancé-testing caskets at Portia's mansion are laptops programmed with cryptic video games. Meanwhile, Shylock receives bad news from his Orthodox friend, Tubal, via photo messaging.

I know this all sounds so hip it hurts. Next thing you know, it'll be YouTubal and, certainly, one wonders why Kate Forbes's tartily rich Portia - living in the Noughties - would accept her dead father's strictures about suitors. More importantly, Abraham's Shylock - with a black beard and only the fringe of his prayer shawl visible under his suit - doesn't merely look like a contemporary Semite. He somehow carries the weight of centuries of Jew-bating and brings to mind other religious conflicts - not least Christian vs Muslim. The hi-tech concept and complicated racial tensions, including black servants, are seen through in detail. Director Darko Tresnjak also shapes speeches powerfully, shifting from cool logic to erupting pain and anger.

Forbes's Portia is disappointing, with a dumb plastic-doll expression, but Nicole Lowrance is memorably shy and fraught as Shylock's repressed, absconding daughter, and Abraham is superbly understated. He argues his corner like a deeply reasonable man, his long face sagaciously dignified but also with a glint of seething bitterness in his eye. He is disturbing and moving, and the spitting racial hatred is truly distressing. An admirable import to round off the international programming in the RSC's Complete Works Festival. Shame it couldn't stay longer.

k.bassett@independent.co.uk

'The Rose Tattoo' (0870 040 0046) to 23 June

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