Watford Palace Theatre, Watford
Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Brigid Larmour
For the second time in six months, the dramatic whirlwind that is Tracy-Ann Oberman has seen a play open that has not only been her brainchild, but has boldly and bravely put antisemitism firmly centre-stage. Her first foray into this field was at the Royal Court in September in what turned out to be a flawed piece of modern writing. This time however, by setting The Merchant of Venice to a backdrop of British fascism in the 1930s, Oberman has hitched the wagons of her creative firepower behind probably the greatest ever writer of English literature and the result is impressive.
The Merchant of Venice 1936 is an exciting interpretation of one of Shakespeare’s most troubling comedies and set against the era of Oswald Mosley and the British Union of Fascists, one sees how easily the Jew-hatred of the Venetians can be translated across the continent to the British Isles. Pause longer, to consider the real impact of Jew-hatred in Europe that blazed in furnaces at that time and the reflection becomes even more chilling.
In a gender swapped Shylock, Oberman transforms the Jewish moneylender into a thickly accented matriarch. An immigrant from eastern Europe, her Shylock is drawn from her great-grandmother who hailed from Belarus and with an opening scene that includes lighting the sabbath candles and blessing a glass of kosher wine (dozens of which are shared with the audience in an opening mise-en-scene) Oberman makes a bold statement that this production of The Merchant of Venice will be firmly rooted in Shylock’s Jewish heritage and the hatred that she and her community endured then and to this day.
Oberman makes fine work, not just of Shylock’s complex motives, but also of some of the most cracking monologues in the canon. Hearing a woman complain of being spat upon, kicked and mocked takes the play’s already present antisemitism and fuels it with a deeply disturbing misogyny. That the homosexual love between Antonio and Bassanio is so strongly signalled in Brigid Larmour’s direction, only adds a troubling depth to the woman-hatred that this Shylock suffers.
The supporting cast are all sound, with standout work from Raymond Coulthard as the fascist Antonio and Hannah Morrish as an icily Mitford-esque Portia. Indeed, when Jessica (Graine Dromgoole) finds herself having eloped to Portia’s Belmont, the diffidence with which she is treated by her hostess together with her coterie, offers a subtle further take on the immigrant Jew as an outsider, never to be truly adopted into their country of residence however hard they may try to assimilate.
Erran Baron Cohen has composed an intelligent musical soundtrack to the play – part schmaltzy Jewish melodies that reflect the scenes in Shylock’s home contrasted with ingeniously Cole Porter-esque tunes that reflect the profound antisemitism of the champagne-quaffing patricians. Liz Cooke's design work on set and costume offers up an effective transition between London’s East End poverty and Belmont’s beauty, while her fascists are elegantly clad in black, as Oberman’s Shylock sports a stunning fur trimmed coat.
If there’s a flaw it’s that perhaps the finale’s segue into the 1936 Battle Of Cable Street is an overly abrupt jolt that follows hard on the gentility of Belmont. Equally there’s a disappointing use of the Union Flag draped around the shoulders of a fascist thug. While the flag may well have been adopted by some uglier aspects of society, it has also been a symbol to immigrants as they stepped off the boat, especially those fleeing persecution, of a land that represented hope and opportunity.
Tracy-Ann Oberman’s production is fine, informative theatre. The Merchant of Venice 1936 offers up not just classic verse, but also a history lesson on this country in the early 20th century. Well worth seeing.
Runs to 11th March and then tours
Photo credit: Marc Brenner