Trevor Nunn has been going from strength to strength at London's Royal National Theatre, where The Merchant of Venice is his latest success. Transposed to the thirties, its early scenes take place in a café or nightspot where "What news on the Rialto?" is aptly asked of a newspaper reader. Here, two bar girls entertain with a droll pop song, and Lancelot Gobbo delivers his monologue as a cabaret act with music to surprisingly good effect.
Nunn has cleverly turned Shylock into a father not above slapping his grown daughter, which helps justify Jessica's defection. Yet, affectingly, Nunn later allows her a twinge of remorse. Small, subtle touches abound, as when Jessica's evidently first taste of champagne makes the girl choke. Less felicitous is the swimsuit scene by Portia's pool, or the absence of all things Venetian until, quite late, we hear a concert of seagulls.
Some things are too contrived. Thus the court allows Shylock to approach Antonio's bared chest, knife in hand, without demur; in another second, blood could be shed. But, to milk the suspense, Shylock himself draws back; only on his second try does Portia stop him at the last moment. Nunn also inserts some Yiddish for father and daughter; at the trial, Shylock's friend Tubal leaves conspicuously as things get hairy, to show that there are "good" Jews as well.
But all updatings are basically problematic, the more so when the material contains fairy-tale elements like the three caskets and the pound of flesh, which can squeak by best through distancing; closer to our time, they become more preposterous. Yet Nunn gets pleasing comical effects from a would-be Europeanized Prince of Morocco and a flamenco-dancing Prince of Aragon. The slightly oversimplified sets by Hildegard Bechtler are no-nonsense efficient, and there is amiable music by Steven Edis played live.
The acting is mostly fine. Henry Goodman's complex Shylock is first rate, as is Gabrielle Jourdan's earnest Jessica. Derbhla Crotty's Portia grows in stature as the action progresses, and Alexander Hanson's Bassanio is dapper and winning. Two weak links are David Bamber's unaccountably nondescript Antonio and Daniel Evans's unprepossessing Lorenzo, who also speaks verse like a sedulous schoolboy, though the others may go too far in prosifying poetry. Still, a mostly absorbing production.