The Merchant of Venice 1936

William Shakespeare
Watford Palace Theatre in association with HOME Manchester
HOME Manchester

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Raymond Coulthard as Antonio, Alex Zur as the Duke and Tracy-Ann Oberman as Shylock Credit: Marc Brenner
Raymond Coulthard as Antonio and Xavier Starr as Gratiano Credit: Marc Brenner
Adam Buchanan as Bassiano Credit: Marc Brenner
Jessica Dennis as Nerissa and Hannah Morrish as Portia Credit: Marc Brenner
Xavier Starr as Gratiano Credit: Marc Brenner
Tracy-Ann Oberman as Shylock Credit: Marc Brenner
Tracy-Ann Oberman as Shylock and the cast of The Merchant of Venice 1936 Credit: Marc Brenner

The history of the playing of Shylock on stage is, in some ways, the history of attitudes towards Jews in different times and countries, particularly in Europe, over the last 400 years; he has been a monster, a pantomime villain and an innocent victim of evil Christians, but all of these distort Shakespeare's play in some way.

In his TV series and book Playing Shakespeare in the 1980s, John Barton spoke to two actors he had directed in this role in the past; Patrick Stewart (not a Jew) said Shylock's Jewishness is a distraction and that he is an outsider who happens to be a Jew, but David Suchet (who is Jewish) disagreed, saying he is an outsider because he is a Jew, and that "the Jewish element in the play is unavoidable and very important," pointing out that he is referred to as 'Shylock' only six times in the script but 22 times as 'Jew'.

Tracy-Ann Oberman's Shylock, from her own concept for the play set in London in 1936 which she worked on with director Brigid Larmour, is defined very much by her Jewishness, both by herself and by others around her. The play begins with the whole cast taking part in a toast, with those of the audience seated around tables on stage joining in, in Hebrew and English translation.

The sounds of shouts and breaking windows can be heard way in the background from time to time, posters for Oswald Mosley and his British Union of Fascists can be seen on walls and Gratiano (Xavier Starr) enters drunk at one point draped in a Union Flag singing anti-Semitic words to "Land of Hope and Glory" (the original handwritten words are reproduced in the programme, written on House of Commons notepaper) then urinates in Shylock's doorway. This comes together with Erran Baron Cohen's music to, subtly but surely, create an intimidating atmosphere.

Raymond Coulthard's Antonio is an older patrician figure to this group of young, rich hotheads, referred to as 'Bullingdon boys' in the programme. Antonio tries to steal a kiss from Bassanio (Adam Buchanan) after being persuaded to finance his wooing of aristocratic Portia (Hannah Morrish)—described in the programme as "a better educated Diana Mitford"—treating Shylock's 'pound of flesh' contract term as a joke. Shylock's daughter, Jessica (Gráinne Dromgoole), betrays her mother by stealing from her and eloping with Lorenzo (Priyank Morjaria), a Christian, but when he brings her to a gathering of his friends, they shun her and look on her with extreme distaste.

When Antonio's finances fail and Shylock takes him to court, he turns up in the black uniform and red armband of Mosley, but Portia comes to court disguised as a male lawyer and defends him very effectively. As with Malvolio in Twelfth Night, Shakespeare has her take this beyond justice or even just making a point to cruelty and ruination, while Gratiano is jumping up and down with childish glee, hurling jibes at Shylock.

After Portia and Nerissa (Jessica Dennis) test their men's faith and all ends happily with weddings, like a comedy, this production has a coda to which all of that background detail had been building. In 1936, the so-called 'Battle of Cable Street' was a victory against Mosley's fascists when they were prevented from marching down this street by a group of East Enders from all faiths who rejected their racist rhetoric. While she was fighting alone in court, here she joins in building barricades before ending with a speech about the power of standing together, finishing with a determined fist in the air.

Of course at a running time of two hours including an interval, there have been quite a few cuts to the text, but these are done very smoothly and invisibly, with the whole play perfectly paced to draw you in and keep your attention, almost thriller-like at times. There are great performances all round and the text is spoken with great clarity, and the whole concept feels natural, not grafted on. There are themes in here that seem particularly relevant now, but then when haven't they?

This is definitely one to see if you get the chance.

Reviewer: David Chadderton

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