Monday 13 November 2023

The Merchant of Venice 1936 - The Oldest Hatred Is Back

Tracy-Ann Oberman and the cast of The Merchant of Venice 1936

Theatregoers have long been used to bag-checks as they arrive for a show. What they will be less familiar with are uniformed security guards, there to protect the show’s cast, crew and audience and who have now become a routine feature of performances of Tracy-Ann Oberman’s Merchant of Venice 1936.

When the production opened in February this year at Watford’s Palace Theatre there was no overt security presence, with Oberman winning critical plaudits both for her tackling of Shakespeare’s study on antisemitism as well as her re-interpretation and re-gendering of Shylock. Rather than sixteenth century Venice, this take on the play is set in 1930s London against the attempted rise of British fascism and the Battle of Cable Street. Oberman describes The Merchant Of Venice 1936, with its focus on a female Shylock and the East End of London’s response to Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists, as “the project of her life”.

But in the midst of a (long pre-planned) tour, the context of this production was radically shifted. Barely 7 months after the Watford press night, on October 7th, the terrorist organization Hamas launched an attack on Israel that in one day saw 1,200 people murdered, countless others raped and brutalised, and more than 200 hostages taken captive into Gaza. While the victims of that infamous day came from a range of countries, the vast majority of them were Jewish Israeli citizens, with the antisemitism that motivated the attack being the most horrendous assault on Jews since the Nazi Holocaust of the 1930s and 40s.

What gives an even more shocking angle to Oberman’s Merchant of Venice is that within days of the October 7th attack, some of Britain’s streets were filled with supporters of Hamas celebrating the terrorists’ horrific deeds. Those celebrations continue to this day, with London and other cities around the world now seeing weekly marches calling for the destruction of the State of Israel, “from the river to the sea”.

It is this outpouring of vile antisemitic rage that offers such a grotesquely chilling parallel to the London of 1936 as presented in Oberman’s interpretation of the play. And sadly it is the risk presented by those potentially violent antisemites that now demands the presence of uniformed security guards as part of the show’s travelling entourage. 

The play itself has matured on the road. Speaking with Oberman as the London run at Wilton’s Music Hall (a venue poignantly situated just off Cable Street) ended and with the show about to head up to York, she commented on the play’s impact following the Hamas attacks and the ensuing torrent of antisemitic hatred onto the streets:
“I’m overwhelmed by how powerful people are finding this production, particularly with a huge rise of antisemitism in the United Kingdom And globally, I think people are aware that during times of unrest the Jewish community is often the first group to be targeted. As we know what starts with the Jews never ends with the Jews”
Edmund Burke famously said that “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing”. In 1936 as London’s antisemites wearing the red and black armbands of the fascist movement and accompanied by the Metropolitan Police attempted to march through the very heart of London’s Jewish community, it was the actions of thousands of Burke’s “good men”, decent Londoners from all communities who stood side by side with the capital’s Jews in the Battle of Cable Street to defeat the evil. Today, rather than armbands, the antisemites are wearing the green and black headbands of Hamas and as they march down Park Lane and onwards, streaming across the Thames, they are terrifyingly cheered on by thousands.

That Oberman’s Merchant of Venice continues to play to packed houses across the country reminds us of England’s underlying decency. Let us pray that that decency can triumph.

With Tracy-Ann Oberman at Wilton's Music Hall

The Merchant of Venice 1936 is on tour playing in York, Chichester and Manchester. In the new year it returns to the RSC in Stratford on Avon. To book tickets, click here

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