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December 15, 2017

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Shakespeare’s ‘Merchant of Venice’ feels more like ‘Merchant of Vegas’


Tom Gorman/Las Vegas Sun

The knighted British actor Patrick Stewart, at CityCenter in January while researching how to set Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice” in Las Vegas.

'Merchant of Venice'

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The moment they take their seats for “The Merchant of Venice” and see the craps table onstage, theatergoers realize they are about to boldly go where no Shakespeare play has been set before — Las Vegas.

As the curtain opens, members of the company are throwing dice, a lone gambler sits at a blackjack table and an Elvis impersonator, flanked by two showgirls, enters the scene singing — what else? — “Viva Las Vegas!”

But this is not some rogue production by a group of wacky community players. Hardly.

This version of “The Merchant of Venice” — surely the most audacious if not the most appropriate of them — is being staged by none other than the Royal Shakespeare Company, at its home theater in the town where the Bard was born, Stratford-upon-Avon.

Leading the cast as Shylock, the money-lending Jew, is the renowned and knighted Shakespearean actor Patrick Stewart, perhaps more popularly known for his role as Capt. Jean-Luc Picard in “Star Trek: The Next Generation.”

This is Stewart’s fifth role as Shylock, and in it he is able to marry his love of Shakespeare with his infatuation with Las Vegas.

Stewart spent several days in Las Vegas in January, to better understand the history of the place and collect more visual impressions and behaviors that could be subtly — or not so subtly — employed in the play to make the Vegas backdrop all the more authentic. He took particular note, for instance, of how blackjack dealers sweep a hand in an arc over the felt indicating all bets are played. So the Shakespearean dealers, new to blackjack, do the same.

This Vegasized “Merchant of Venice” has been largely praised by theater critics who thought it daring, fun and apropos to the play’s themes.

This version sprung from a screenplay by John Logan (“Any Given Sunday,” “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” “The Aviator,” “The Last Samurai”) and is directed by the boldly imaginative Rupert Goold, who has set “The Tempest” on an arctic island and placed “Macbeth” in a Stalinesque dictatorship.

Stewart was relaxed and in good spirits when we chatted a few days ago by phone. “It’s going tremendously well,” he said of the play. “The reviews have been mostly good. A few strongly dissenting voices from newspapers that I would have expected. But the audiences love it, and the shows are virtually sold out.”

Here are excerpts of our conversation.

What was the genesis for setting “The Merchant of Venice” in Las Vegas?

John Logan and I were sitting on the set of “Star Trek: Nemesis,” working late one night, and somehow the conversation turned to “The Merchant of Venice.” John said to me, “That’s a play I hope I never have to see again.” And I presented an argument for why I thought it was a masterpiece and seriously misunderstood.

The next Monday he came back to me and said, “You wrecked my weekend, and I’ll let you know what comes of it.” Three weeks later he said, “I have something for you.” It was a completed screenplay of “The Merchant of Venice” — set in Las Vegas. I was thrilled because in that context it worked beautifully — the play has a great deal to do with gambling, of taking risks both financially and in personal relationships which, in the play, are valued in monetary terms.

I am an enthusiast in setting Shakespeare’s works in periods other than when they were set or written. And as an actor who was going to play Shylock for the fifth time, I felt his character would work admirably in this kind of setting.

But also, there was sheer delight in the idea of setting it in Las Vegas. I am a fan of Las Vegas. I always look forward to going — I’ll be there in August attending a science fiction convention.

The Venetian was going to be the primary location for a significant part of the action, with its canals and palaces being referred to in the play. It would have been a delightful relationship, setting the film in the closest thing to real Venice.

It wasn’t going to be an easy project to pursue but we were doing pretty well for a while. Then two things happened that made us drop it — the “Merchant of Venice” movie with Al Pacino came out, and our funding disappeared.

The hope now is that with the interest shown in our stage production, we will still make a film — particularly if this production continues to have a future in terms of the West End of London and an international life.

Including, maybe, the Smith Center for the Performing Arts?

Yes, indeed!

If the play is set in Las Vegas, which English accents are we hearing?

Almost every word you hear is Shakespeare’s. We are the Royal Shakespeare Company and we take our verse-speaking seriously. But of course, every line of dialogue is in an American accent, and here and there, other accents creep in. Portia and Nerissa are very Southern — Georgia, I would say, given my experience of the South. And Antonio, who comes from Boston, plus some very strong Brooklyn accents.

The American accent sounds much closer to how Shakespeare’s own actors would have spoken. I don’t think Shakespeare would recognize how I talk. A few words have been changed — I’m an advocate of updating obscure terms. Like ducats. My first line in the play is, “Three thousand ducats.” But in this production I say, “Three million dollars.” Because, 3,000 ducats, what the hell is that?

And of course, you’ll hear Elvis singing, and you’ll hear a reference to Barbra Streisand.

How are you presented in the play?

By the time the audience sees me, it’s already seen the craps tables and dealers and showgirls. We want to establish Shylock’s status in the community, so I am beautifully dressed in a pale gray suit and silk tie. I look like a successful businessman. When I first appear, I am looking at a large model of the Strip — you can pick out the Luxor, Paris, the Venetian — and I’m giving notes to an assistant, suggesting that Shylock is a developer funding some huge development. He’s an investor, perhaps a property developer.

How did your Las Vegas research benefit you?

I have been to Las Vegas many times, usually for entertainment and to do conventions and occasional events around the Star Trek Experience at the Las Vegas Hilton. I embrace Las Vegas for what it is. When I used to go with my pals from “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” a guys’ weekend away, we’d always spend a couple of hours downtown along Fremont Street — we all love that part of the city — before going to dinner.

In January, what I was looking for — and what I found — was an understanding of the history of Las Vegas. How it came to be. Who financed it. Who were the principal players during its life. The most interesting thing I learned, even though there was no way we could introduce it into the play, was who owned Las Vegas to begin with and who owns and finances it now. It has shifted from the mob-infuence to Jewish and Mormon influence into the world of Wall Street and high finance.

That knowledge helped give me, as Shylock in this context, a lot of imaginative leeway to be creative.

Putting Shylock, a Jewish financier, at center of Las Vegas makes absolute sense. But the depth of anti-Semitism illustrated in the play is not representative of the financial life in Las Vegas. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to establish Shylock as a very successful operator, a man who works in this community very successfully. What he’s dealing with is personal anti-Semitism, involving Antonio and his group of friends.

How many Vegas elements are in the play?

Well, there’s Elvis, and showgirls. The model of the Strip. The craps table, which is the first thing the audience sees. And the blackjack tables. There are four guys in a convertible that would suggest a ride down the Strip. Antonio’s trial brings to mind the early days of Las Vegas and the sorts of people you would not want to cross.

And there’s the sense that you’re watching fraternity boys on vacation with too much money and too little responsibility, out to have a good time.

We talked about “What happens in Las Vegas ...” but we restrained ourselves from using it.

Was there tension in how much Las Vegas to invoke?

The only slight falling out Rupert and I had was when I said we should go whole-hog and change every reference of Venice to Vegas. But Rupert didn’t have the guts. We did add a scene, though, of a hostess walking across the stage carrying a sign and yelling “Keno! Keno!” I think this is the only production of a Shakespeare play in which the words keno and Barbra Streisand are heard. And I think Shakespeare would love it.

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