Rupert Goold’s production of The Merchant of Venice is an eye-catching and entertaining take on Shakespeare’s play. Moving the action from Venice to Vegas, complete with show girls and slot machines, is in keeping with this energetic director’s past work. Since both cities focus on money, more specifically greed, the relocation isn’t crazy, and the parallel between gambling and the risks the merchant Antonio takes really works. So Las Vegas adds fun. Unfortunately, this means some forced interpretations of the text, particularly in the recollections of the servant Lancelet, played by a very game Jamie Beamish transformed into an Elvis impersonator. It’s definitely something you’ll either love or hate.
On firmer ground, Goold stages the competition for Portia’s hand in marriage as a tacky quiz show – think Deal Or No Deal. Portia (Susannah Fielding) and her maid, a co-host, are airhead hillbillies, while suitors choose which box contains permission to marry, on TV. Live recording the action on stage feels like a frill, but the approach adds drama to repetitive scenes that can be dull and develops a theme of role-playing nicely. In the courtroom scene, when Portia comes disguised to defend Antonio, it’s thankfully not a case of Legally Blond, but real desperation she conveys. Portia’s insistence on the law becomes vicious, in keeping with a strain of shock tactics that make the scene gripping.
So here’s the real surprise of the evening. This Merchant of Venice boasts Ian McDiarmid, making a welcome return to the Almeida and never to be missed on stage. Also, the excellent Scott Handy does a superb job as Antonio, the still centre of this often stormy show. But it’s Fielding and the role of Portia that really intrigues. The play’s anti-Semitism is clear and bravely dealt with, yet Goold seems more concerned with its misogyny. The final scene, a happy reunion at Belmont, often a cozy rounding up of the play, has a suggestion of violence towards the young brides that leaves an uneasy feeling. As Portia dons the blonde wig she wore on television, clearly destined to an inferior role in her new marriage, it appears she has lost her bet.
Stephen Sachs’ sprightly, award-winning comedy Bakersfield Mist is inspired by true events, namely the inspection of a newly discovered Jackson Pollock painting in a trailer park. It’s a light look at the art world while, naturally, encompassing broader issues about how we evaluate our lives.
The idea that a masterpiece could be found by someone as rough and ready as Maude (Kathleen Turner) is enough to prejudice curatorial star and snob Lionel (Ian McDiarmid). The suicidal ex-barmaid and stuffy expat academic are another variation on that old theme of the ‘odd couple’. Of course, there’s more to both characters than meets the eye. Plunged into each other’s worlds, they find common ground in their passionate beliefs and integrity, which relegate the painting’s authenticity to a sub plot. A battle of wits and wills, full of twists and turns, ensues.
Given recent American plays that have been wowing the critics, Bakersfield Mist might strike one as a little tame. But it’s conscientiously crafted and, if contrived, has more than enough ideas to its credit. Its brevity, running at just over 80 minutes, as well as Polly Teale’s sure-handed direction, leave you wanting more. Sachs has been given a gift with this cast, who bring out the best in the text and glide over more than a few flaws.
Indeed, the actors are outstanding: McDiarmid reveals his comic skills playing a pretty ridiculous Englishman, and does well to bring out what depth there is in his character to command the stage. Turner has real star appeal. As the underdog, a good deal of Maude’s battle is won for the actress by Sachs’s writing, but she combines terrific timing with a real sense of her character’s desperation, which skillfully engages the audience. Personal authenticity is a theme applied with a brush that’s a little too broad at times, but the performances in this Anglo-American double act more than stand up to scrutiny.
The Donmar’s production of Heinrich von Kleist’s The Prince of Homburg is another attempt to provide London audiences with the chance to see a classic we should all be more familiar with. Written just before the author’s death in 1811, the play is a mixture of romance and military drama, pitting the emotions of its hero with his sense of honour.
The Prince is the kind of dreaming philosopher that director Jonathan Munby deals well with. Munby’s last production at the Donmar, Life is a Dream, shared concerns about the failings of human perception and this production has a similar ethereal feel. But the Prince is also a military leader and when he makes a mistake in battle and is court marshalled, he comes to believe that he should pay for his error with his life. A modern audience is bound to have problems finding this believable. His journey to the decision is too brief to dispel these doubts and Dennis Kelly’s new version bizarrely encourages them.
The problem of motivation seems shared by the cast as well. Charlie Cox as the Prince and Sonya Cassidy as his love interest do well to establish a magnetic relationship, but the emotions surrounding the Prince’s imprisonment and attempts to save, then sacrifice him for the cause of army discipline, are unbelievable. Cox is a fine hero, he ‘does’ dignity well, but you can’t help thinking he is a fool.
Cox gets your sympathy (which is the last thing the character should have) especially given who he is up against – the Elector Frederick in the form of Ian McDiarmid. Playing an evil emperor is bread and butter to McDiarmid (he is the bad guy in the Star Wars films) but he really does excel at it. Bringing every subtlety out of the character he adds humour as well as chilling efficiency to the role. You never doubt him. He is full of frustrations and fears as well as being the consummate politician.
The Prince of Homburg is a classy affair with a stylish design from Angela Davies and a strong supporting cast that often seems wasted. McDiarmid alone makes this production worth seeing. His performance is one of those masterclass affairs that occur far less frequently than we are led to believe. Just don’t expect to get very much else from the evening.