Portia and Paula
We went last week to the Almeida Theatre‘s extraordinary production of Merchant of Venice. It’s set in Las Vegas, with gaming machines and glitz everywhere, and intermittent appearances from an Elvis imitator. Portia is a dizzy blonde on 6-inch heels, and the competition to win her hand is pitched as a TV reality show. The accents are full-on American, except for Shylock who speaks with a thick German intonation, initially from behind a broad business desk.
For the first three acts I enjoyed the imagination that had gone into it and laughed at the jokes embedded into the glitz, but wondered how they were going to pull it into meaningful tragedy. The usual acid test for this play is how to conjure up sympathy for Shylock, such that we feel for him as he bleeds. In this production, the trial scene was truly dramatic;a semi-naked Antonio is strung up on a hook , his torso convulsing in gruesome anticipation of Shylock’s knife. Portia intervenes, dressed in a smart male business suit and flat shoes; and Shylock is spat upon and dismissed.
The coup comes in the last act. Generally this is an overlong working out of the joke which Portia and her maid Nerissa play on their respective lovers. In their lawyers’ disguise they have managde to extract from them the rings that the men promised never to let go, and can now exact their revenge. In this production, the women (or at least Portia) carry this through with real sharpness, and none of the standard affectionate teasing. And then comes the coup: right at the end, Portia, having revealed herself to her husband Bassanio, goes to her clothes bag and pulls out her gear – the big blonde wig and the silver heels. She gets one shoe on and then almost collapses in tears. Instead of falling happily into her husband’s arms, she crumples miserably. There’s no happy ending, for anyone.
Our view, huddled in theatre-bar conversation immediately afterwards, was that Portia had tasted freedom, and then found herself forced back into captivity . In her first appearance, in Act 1, she says: ” O me, the word ‘choose!’ I may neither choose whom I would nor refuse whom I dislike.” She is the passive prize of a competition. Conventionally we are glad when Bassanio wins her, as her preferred suitor. But – and here is the production’s originality – Portia turns out to be seriously clever in her legal thinking, even doing it on the hoof. She is much more than a confection of garish pseudo-sexy clothes. Having had the chance to show her talents, she now finds herself thrust back to her previous role, with Bassanio likely to spend more time on his (strongly homoerotic) friendship with Antonio than with her. She wants to choose what to do with herself – and can see that she’s heading straight back to the Vegas lifestyle. I thought this was a brilliant interpretation – and a wonderful illustration of the Paula Principle.