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First Night: The Merchant Of Venice

Published 16 December 2014

What’s it all about?

It’s Shakespeare’s problem play of greed, prejudice, deceiving appearances and revenge, in which moneylender Shylock famously threatens to take a pound of flesh when a debt is not repaid.

Oh, and in this production it’s set in Las Vegas. With an Elvis impersonator. And a game show. And casino dancers. It’s not just garish, it’s proper full on gare, and louder than a whooping drunken pensioner who’s just won the jackpot on a one-armed bandit.

Who’s in it?

Ian McDiarmid is back at the Almeida Theatre, where he once served as co-Artistic Director, giving Shylock a touch of the Emperor Palpatines. His is a Shylock driven by a pure hatred; a hatred that quite clearly comes from years of abuse at the hands of the Christians he now has the power to punish. Though he is never likeable, you cannot take your eyes off this unrepentant personification of malice.

Susannah Fielding is near revelatory as a Portia whose love will be won or lost via a Deal Or no Deal-esque game show. On screen she appears the very picture of a Paris Hilton airhead, forced rictus grin and all; when the cameras switch off her desperation, flaws and crippling self-doubt emerge.

But to a person this cast, many of whom appeared in the production when it was first staged by the Royal Shakespeare Company, is as impressive as a Cirque Du Soleil Sin City spectacular.

What should I look out for?

Everything. Seriously.

Director Rupert Goold has created a setting for the play, which poses many problems for us as modern audiences with its vile depiction of anti-Semitism, that allows the full force of its comedy to flourish, thereby making the shocking scenes that much more impactful.

He’s done so by drawing the best out of his cast, but also designer Tom Scutt, whose Vegas setting is deliciously gaudy, Adam Cork and Gregory Clarke’s work with music and sound that moves from booming baselines to the stark buzzes and grinds of prison, and Scott Ambler’s scene-setting casino choreography.

It’s all a treat. Don’t blink.

In a nutshell?

Rupert Goold hits the jackpot with his Vegas-set Merchant Of Venice.

What’s being said on Twitter?

@tomskerous Blimey, Almeida production of Merchant of Venice was awesome last night. Hilarious and horrifying in equal measure. Iain McDiarmid so subtle

@OssieSaysStuff Merchant of Venice @AlmeidaTheatre not only end to end entertaining but bares ugly heart of the text & delivers the lines with the meaning.

Will I like it?

‘Like’ is so difficult with The Merchant Of Venice. While much of the play is about greed and the reality of a person as opposed to how they appear, there’s also so much about its exploration of racial and religious hatred that is vile and repulsive. But, that the show’s press performance came shortly after the end of the siege in Sydney proves how important it is to continue confronting these attitudes rather than hiding from them.

Goold’s production, which is ridiculously entertaining and in many places genuinely hilarious, lays this hatred bare, exposing the characters we’ve previously felt for and making us feel for a persecuted tyrant. Far from tying up loose ends and giving us a happy ending, everyone remains scarred by their actions.

 It is, quite simply, a remarkable staging that demands a longer life.


The Merchant Of Venice plays at the Almeida Theatre until 14 February. You can book tickets through the theatre’s website.


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