Opening next week at Watford Palace theatre is The Merchant of Venice 1936, a production that is the brainchild of actress Tracy-Ann Oberman who, for a number of years, has nurtured the idea of taking one of Shakespeare’s most controversial plays and pivoting it into the 20th century.
I caught up with Tracy-Ann in the middle of rehearsals and we spoke about its conception and development. Describing The Merchant of Venice as a very difficult play, she does not think that the text is taught properly in schools today, observing that a lot of people argue for it to be removed from the syllabus. Oberman however wants to make the play accessible, offering a fuller understanding of antisemitism, as well as reclaiming aspects of the Jewish history of London’s East End, an area of the city long associated with poorer immigrant communities. Her own roots go back to the East End and she remains inspired by her great grandmother and the matriarchs of her family who all stood against Oswald Mosley and his British Union of Fascists at the Battle of Cable St in 1936.
She comments that Shakespeare wrote the The Merchant of Venice at a time of huge antisemitism, when the Jews had already been banished and the few that were left in England were frequently seen as devils. The emergence of mediaeval antisemitism was strongly fuelled by Jews often being the money collectors for the king.
Around this time the myths about Jews and blood libels were to emerge, myths that have never really left the English sub-conscience, Oberman wryly comments. And so the Jew, as a sort of evil villain she continues, was absolutely where Shakespeare wanted to place him, much like Marlowe had done with his creation of Barabas for The Jew of Malta.
With all due humility, Oberman does credit Shakespeare as a very good writer. She acknowledges that in Shylock he has created aspects of humanity which are frequently absent from other portrayals of Jews in literature, notably The Jew of Malta where Barabas, in her opinion, is simply a cartoon villain. She comments that in The Merchant of Venice the “’hath not a Jew eyes” speech is brilliant, describing it as an absolute call to humanity to say that we are all the same, that we are all human.
Oberman has long been fascinated by Britain’s history in the 1930s, a time that saw flirtations from the country’s aristocracy with the parties of fascism both at home and in continental Europe. It is no small coincidence that Mosley’s march of fascists that led to the Battle of Cable Street, occurred during the brief reign of Edward VIII, himself strongly suspected of harbouring fascist ideals. Oberman sees the play as shining a spotlight into some of this country’s darker crevices.
She is also proud of having reinvented Shylock as a female role and in so doing, reclaiming a different aspect of the narrative. Referencing how within the text, that Shylock is referred to as a dog and Antonio, the merchant to whom Shylock has loaned money secured on a pound of flesh, kicks at her and spits at her, Oberman sees a clear link between misogyny and antisemitism. She is well qualified to make such an observation. Away from the stage Tracy-Ann Oberman is one of the UK’s leading campaigners in today’s fight against antisemitism, a role that has seen her subject to some of the vilest abuse imaginable. Oberman has seen all too clearly in her inbox and her social media streams the seamless link betwixt the hatred of Jews and a hatred of women.
On the subject of women I quiz Oberman on Shylock’s relationship with daughter Jessica. Penned by Shakespeare with a father/daughter perspective in mind, how is the mother/daughter dynamic evolving? The mother of a teenage daughter herself, Oberman observes that Jessica has the capacity to range from being her mother’s best friend to her worst enemy and she is relishing that parental aspect of the role.
Exploring as to how this interpretation of the play may be received by people who don’t share Oberman's Jewish heritage, she comments that she’s already observed people who’ve seen the play in rehearsals, friends of hers from working class backgrounds or diverse immigrant backgrounds, who are are recognising aspects of her Shylock in their own heritage and also with Shylock as a matriarch, identifying strongly with the strong woman that Oberman portrays.
The conversation would not be complete without an understanding of the supportive role that Watford Palace Theatre have played in bringing the play to fruition. Oberman speaks with an affection towards the venue that is almost tangible. Growing up in the London suburb of Stanmore, close to Watford, she would visit the theatre often as a child and it was there that her passion for acting was encouraged and nurtured. In later years and meeting up with Brigid Larmour, the Artistic Director of Watford Palace, it was Lamour who asked the actress what she was doing, to which Oberman replied that she was working on “this idea of a female Shylock”. From there the two of them took the idea forwards, receiving developmental support from the RSC, with Oberman reflecting warmly that Larmour has proved to be an incredible ally both creatively and politically.
In the first scene of The Merchant of Venice Antonio famously says the world is “A stage where every man must play a part”. On the Watford Palace stage Tracy-Ann Oberman will be upending Antonio’s words in what promises to be an exciting evening of Shakespeare.
The Merchant of Venice 1936 runs from 27th February to 11th March and then tours