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Theatre Review (Stratford on Avon): The Merchant of Venice at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre

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If life begins at 40, and 60 is the new 40, then where does that leave 50-year-olds? In ebullient mood in the case of the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-on-Avon, currently celebrating its half-century with a newly revamped theatre and a season of productions staged specifically for it.

Not everyone will buy into Rupert Goold’s re-telling of The Merchant of Venice: the action has been shifted from the Adriatic to across the Atlantic and brought forward to our own troubled times where the consequences of credit – or its lack – are keenly felt. For my money, the American accents do no harm to Shakespeare’s words – quite the opposite – while the casino culture and game show spin on the plot work almost uncannily well: you begin to wonder why the play isn’t always staged this way. Having said that, a little too much attention has been lavished on the spectacular set pieces to the detriment of some of the wordier scenes in a second half that runs rather long, a fault that may correct itself in due course.

Patrick Stewart is unsurprisingly excellent as a Shylock anything but the villain of the piece and certainly more sinned against than sinning. Stewart’s stage presence is such that the other male leads are semi-eclipsed and the field left clear for Susannah Fielding, in her first year at the RSC, to give a fantastic performance as a multi-faceted Portia imprisoned by her own fairy story.

“I just cannot see how an Elvis impersonator fits into Shakespeare,” ran the mutinous muttering of an aggrieved audience member who was most certainly alive when the RSC was established in 1961: it would be madness not to buy a ticket and find out if you agree.

The Merchant of Venice runs through October 4 at the Royal Shakespeare Company.

Photo by Alastair Muir

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