Please note: This review – like the production itself – discusses antisemitism and fascism. Please take care when reading and click off this article if these subjects are triggering to you.
William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice – considered cruel and controversial for its grossly antisemitic plot – receives a striking re-staging in 1930s Britain amid rising far-right fascism, with Doctor Who’s Tracy-Ann Oberman giving a solid performance as a female Shylock.
While the original text exposes the antisemitism present in the Elizabethan era, its translation over to Britain in 1936 emphasises a dark moment in our country’s history, with the play immediately opening on the surge in popularity for Oswald Mosley, the founder and leader of the British Union of Fascists. The black and white projections (from Greta Zabulyte), together with subdued colourful costumes and a gloomy set with hidden surprises (both from Liz Cooke), do well to conjure a sense of the time period, even though the pulling of a curtain across the set to switch between scenes feels a tad too bland.
Similarly, I will always have some respect for shows which place audience members near the actors to get closer to the action, placing a row of houses at the very far back of the stage does distance us considerably from the setting in a way which is not just literal. I was sat in the stalls and yet I still felt there was a lot of space in the set going to waste. For a show which seeks to remind us of a shocking part in British history, is very much themed around this new setting and carries a slightly pointed, critical and confrontational feel to Shakespeare’s original tale, this decision seems rather unusual, and goes some way to ebb the flow of the piece.
The opening scenes also portray Gratiano (Xavier Starr) as camp and giddy, while Portia (Hannah Morrish) and Nerissa (Jessica Dennis) share an intimate moment which isn’t explored further. There is nothing wrong with indulging in the frivolity of Shakespeare, even in his more dramatic and delicate plays, but it just feels out of place here. As for Oberman’s Shylock, a Venetian merchant who loans money to a fascist Antonio in an all-black uniform (Raymond Coulthard), warning she will demand a pound of his flesh if he does not honour the agreement, her take is passionate but strained. Oberman often deploys a pinching gesture when speaking, yet at many points this doesn’t match the emphasis in her dialogue.
Everything feels a lot tighter and dynamic in the second act, not least because a lot of the first act in this story is more focussed on world-building and the juggling of a few other minor subplots. With fascism snowballing to the extent Antonio, Bassanio (Adam Buchanan) and Gratiano now come equipped with prominent red armbands, Shylock’s court case now becomes a unsuccessful battle against a institution also infected with the sickening racism that is antisemitism, the order for the Jewish merchant to be forcibly converted to Christianity becomes even more devastating and impactful, manifesting in a compelling climax calling out to a modern audience to stand up. It’s candid in saying that when marginalised communities have nothing left – as Shylock does in the play’s conclusion – all that is left for them to do is fight, and for allies to stand with them. It’s an intelligent inversion on Shakespeare’s original from director Brigid Larmour, and an all too damningly relevant message to send.
The Merchant of Venice 1936 is now playing at Watford Palace Theatre until 11 March. Both the captioned and audio described performance will take place on 9 March.
The show will then transfer to HOME Manchester until 25 March. A captioned performance is scheduled for 23 March, while both the audio described and British Sign Language (BSL) interpreted performance will take place on 24 March.
Production Images: Marc Brenner.
Disclaimer: I was invited to watch ‘The Merchant of Venice 1936’ for free in exchange for a review of the performance as a member of the press. I did not receive payment for this article and all opinions stated above are honest and my own.