Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Vidar's latest review - Merchant of Venice

Review of audio described performance of Merchant of Venice at the new RSC Theatre on the afternoon of Saturday 18 June 2011 – from Vidar Hjardeng.

Since its official opening earlier in the year I had really been looking forward to going to the completely new and much heralded, Royal Shakespeare Theatre. Whilst I had seen ‘The City Madam’ at the adjacent Swan Theatre earlier this month, it was wonderful to attend an audio-described performance of the 2011 production of Shakespeare’s masterpiece, dealing with the themes of prejudice and anti-Semitism, ‘The Merchant of Venice’ in the new auditorium on the afternoon of Saturday 18 June - and what a terrific production it was too! I shall certainly remember my first audio-described experience in the new RSC theatre, as it was one of the best productions I had seen in Stratford for some time - praise indeed as the standard is always extremely high.

Young people can often be a touch daunted by the thought of either studying a Shakespeare play at school, or even going to see said play performed on the stage, but in my view this fantastic interpretation – directed by Rupert Gould – would surely win over those who might feel that Shakespeare was not for them. This production transplanted the action from 16th century Venice to the glitzy, glamorous, and shallow, society of present day Las Vegas – a world of TV game shows, casinos and organised crime. As one of the audio-describers aptly put it in the ever helpful introductory notes - available either online or on CD by request - ‘Sometimes it feels as if Guys and Dolls has met the X Factor!’ Rupert Gould selected a number of well known American icons – Elvis Presley, Mike Tyson and Hollywood star, Reece Witherspoon – to feature as some of the play’s characters, ie Shylock’s servant Launcelot Gobbo; one the contestants, Morocco; and of course the heroine, Portia.

I can’t recommend highly enough having the time to digest the pre-show notes before arriving at the theatre, as well as taking advantage of the ‘live’ reprise 15 minutes before the start of the play – how else would I, and fellow visually impaired patrons, have known that the play opened on the gaming floor of an upmarket casino with croupiers, waiters and scantily clad showgirls, mingling with the punters. Later in the play, again thanks to these instructive background notes, I was prepared when the game show ’Destiny’ got under way and an ornate blue and gold sofa rose through a trap door in the centre of stage, on which ‘the prize’ Portia, and her maid Narissa were seated. We were also told about 2 large TV screens – each flanked by 4 smaller screens – suspended over the heads of the show’s presenters on which the images of the young women appeared simultaneously. As part of the game show, Portia’s suitors each chose a casket to open, hoping to find her portrait inside, and thereby win her hand in marriage.

In the famous courtroom scene, Carolyn Smith and Julia Grundy’s comprehensive notes painted a vivid picture of the unconventional backdrop where Shylock (superbly played by Sir Patrick Stewart) demanded his ‘pound of flesh’. Without their description I would have been blissfully unaware that the drama was unfolding in a butcher’s shop, complete with meat hooks hanging from a steel ring and animal carcasses piled up at the back of the room.

The chief feature of this audio-described performance’s touch tour was being able was going backstage to examine so many of the props and costumes and what also enhanced my first visit to the new theatre, was being greeted by many familiar front of house faces who handed out the headsets and large print or Braille cast lists

Amongst others of the RSC’s audio described shows in Stratford, will be Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming, on the afternoon of Saturday, 10 September, and details of how to book concessionary tickets, headsets and places on the touch tour, as well as other useful information can be found by ringing the box office on 0844 800 1110.

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