Review by Raphael Kohn
New and inventive re-imaginings of Shakespeare’s works are all the rage right now, with the RSC, Donmar Warehouse and National Theatre, among many others, bringing new productions of some of the greatest works to the stages of the UK recently. Few have had such an intriguing concept as Watford Palace Theatre and HOME Manchester’s co-production of The Merchant of Venice 1936 – the question is, would the audience buy it?
Charting the story of Antonio and his friend Bassanio, The Merchant of Venice follows Antonio as he takes a loan from the local Jewish money-lender Shylock (a person he has previously publicly spat on and committed other acts of antisemitic abuse towards). Usually charging interest, Shylock offers a loan interest-free with one condition – should the loan not be repaid in time, Shylock will be entitled to take a pound of Antonio’s flesh. Antonio agrees to be the guarantor of the loan, and Bassanio heads off to try for the hand of the woman of his dreams, Portia.
Shakespeare’s original writing plays pretty squarely into antisemitic stereotypes, of the miserly Jewish money-obsessed money-lender and the theme of taking flesh (and thereby blood, which becomes a significant turning-point in the climax) being dangerously close to Blood Libel. Shakespeare nerds and academics have argued for years whether the writing is sympathetic or antisemitic – for what it’s worth, I’m firmly a believer in the latter – but all this changes in this groundbreaking new production.
Brigid Larmour’s direction turns the text on its head by setting it against the backdrop of the Battle of Cable Street, a pivotal moment in British Jewish history in which Jews, Communists, Anti-Fascists and many local marginalised communities clashed with the police, who were protecting Oswald Mosley and his fascist Blackshirts as they marched through London’s East End to terrorise the Jews, along with everyone who didn’t fit in with their fascist ideology. The theme of British antisemitism is all too prevalent throughout the play, with the white British characters’ constant jabs at Shylock ever reminding us of their hatred.
This all centres around Tracy-Ann Oberman, the notable Jewish actor and activist whose own family’s experiences escaping pogroms influence and inform her portrayal as Shylock. With a distinctive eastern-European accent and just the right amount of Jewish mannerisms without going too far towards stereotypes, Oberman delivers a world-class performance as Shylock. While she could have performed the role as an embittered Shylock, bristling with anger throughout, Oberman’s portrayal shines in its subtlety, letting the trauma of her past as a victim of pogroms simmer under a more restrained façade. Letting this façade slip as she delivers one of Shakespeare’s best speeches – ‘Hath not a Jew eyes’ – was perhaps one of the most unforgettable moments of British theatre I can recall. I dare say I’ve ever seen a better performance of the role.
While Oberman does indeed astonish, it was a slight shame that the production itself didn’t fully realise its potential. Setting The Merchant of Venice against such a dramatic political background was a revelatory idea. It could have burnt brightly with earth-shattering intensity, yet the first act seemed to lack the intensity it could have benefitted from. Expecting to be shocked and shaken by the racist hate that could have unfurled before me, it was a slight disappointment that the most disturbing thing to happen in the first act was the sound of a glass window smashing at the back of the auditorium.
Luckily, though, this was not to last for long, as the second half picked up the pace so vividly that I was shaken to the core by the end. This takes us through Shylock’s court case as she demands her pound of flesh from Antonio, the moment at which the tables turn and the antisemitic Antonio, now dressed in a black suit and red armband as one of Oswald Mosely’s fascist blackshirts, gleefully torments Shylock and reminds her where the power lies. This really was the shocking and terror-inducing atmosphere that this production needed all along. I’ve never heard an audience gasp so loud as when Antonio, with a twisted smile, enforces Shylock’s conversion to Christianity, stripping away her Judaism which she holds most dear.
Oberman is, however, not on her own here, with a supporting cast that brings this production of The Merchant of Venice to life excellently. Of particular note is Raymond Coulthard, as Antonio, whose antisemitic evil is palpable from the moment he enters the stage. Coulthard epitomises the darkness that Larmour aimed to bring to this production to perfection – as a British Jew, I don’t know if I’ve ever felt so uncomfortable in a theatre. This is not a negative by any stretch of the imagination; it is precisely what I had hoped would happen in this production.
Costumed and with a set design by Liz Cooke, The Merchant of Venice 1936 is simplistic in design, and all the better for it. Letting its actors shine at the forefront, the set consists of a simple back wall, which in turn becomes a synagogue, a street and, most frighteningly, begins to be populated increasingly with pro-fascism posters. Cooke’s work shines the most in the costuming, especially the particularly frightening fascists’ uniforms.
The Merchant of Venice 1936 is an urgent Merchant of Venice for our times, and one that should not be missed at all. With a career-defining performance as Shylock, Tracy-Ann Oberman astonishes in Brigid Larmour’s production – my only hope is that those who deny antisemitism, or diminish its existence and harm, see this production, and learn from it.
The Merchant of Venice 1936 plays at the Watford Palace Theatre until 11th March. It will then play at HOME Manchester from 15th-25th March, and then will tour from September-November 2023. Tickets for the Watford run can be purchased here: https://watfordpalacetheatre.co.uk/events/the-merchant-of-venice-1936/, and tickets for the Manchester run can be purchased here: https://homemcr.org/production/the-merchant-of-venice-1936/ with further tour dates to go on sale in due course.
Photos by Marc Brenner