The Merchant of Venice 1936

William Shakespeare
Watford Palace Theatre and HOME Manchester
Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon

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Tracy-Ann Oberman (Shylock) and company Credit: Marc Brenner
Raymond Coulthard (Antonio), Priyank Morjaria (Lorenzo) and Tracy-Ann Oberman (Shylock) Credit: Marc Brenner

When Tracy-Ann Oberman told director Brigid Larmour that she wanted to play Shylock, she had in mind her great grandmother Annie, who had fled anti-Jewish pogroms to find what she thought was a safe haven in the East End of London.

Together, Oberman and Larmour judiciously cut the text and set the piece in 1936 against a backdrop of the rise of Oswald Mosley’s fascists and the coming Battle of Cable Street when Jews and Christians joined forces to resist a march of his blackshirts.

Wow, does that work. Their collaboration results in one of the most compelling and satisfying productions of this sometimes troublesome play that I can recall.

Oberman, a past RSC and National Theatre star but perhaps best known, appropriately enough, as EastEnders’ Chrissie Watts, is terrific, the epitome of the Jewish matriarch, fearsome, intense, scary. "Call’st me dog," she says with icy calm, "beware my fangs."

The setting, with projections of fascist slogans and a Mosley racist rant, contextualises Shylock’s bitter pride brilliantly, all the more so for the part being translated into a female role, adding one extra layer of prejudice against which the Jew has to fight so fiercely. "If you wrong us, will we not revenge?"

A fine supporting cast shows up the unsound character of each of Shylock’s male adversaries, Raymond Coulthard an uptight, insecure Antonio, the excellent Xavier Starr a drunken, posh but dim, loud-mouthed Gratiano, Gavin Fowler a conniving Bassiano—needing a helpful nudge to choose the right casket to win his Portia.

Hannah Morrish is a slinky, silky, ever-so upper-class Portia, rather improbably emerging from riding to hounds (in the East End?), more impressively later transformed beyond recognition into the trial judge. The only drawback of the lead casting is that it makes it harder to believe that Grainne Dromgoole's Jessica would do the dirty on her mother.

The menfolk progressively—or rather regressively—adopt the flash and red armband of Mosley’s British Union of Fascists as the play progresses, but Oberman and Larmour have the last word, as actors and audience rise in a closing gesture of solidarity against racism.

It’s a theatrical device, not entirely within the remit of a play that leaves Shylock as a broken figure, but nevertheless an affirmative ending, and welcome.

The production is the first long-run I can remember at the RSC by an outside company. Perhaps this change of policy was partly motivated by economy, but the result perfectly justifies the decision, and may open the door to others bringing new ideas to this prestigious stage.

The show goes on tour to High Wycombe, Malvern, Bromley, Cardiff, Wilton's Music Hall London, York, Chichester and Manchester before returning to the Swan on 24 January 2024.

Reviewer: Colin Davison

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