Integrate and disintegrate: The Merchant of Venice 1936

Photo by Marc Brenner

Watford Palace Theatre brings its ground-breaking new production of one of Shakespeare’s most enduring classics to York Theatre Royal. Tracy-Ann Oberman (EastEnders, Doctor Who, Friday Night Dinner) makes history as the first British actress to play Shylock in The Merchant of Venice 1936.

Entering through the auditorium and welcoming the audience into the show, the cast open the evening with a Hebrew prayer, gathered at table, surrounding Shylock like family. Immediately, this intimate moment of community is polluted with projections of swastika flags and antisemitic headlines signalling that we are now in London’s East End during the peak of the British Union of Fascists. Almost as quickly, the family is dissolved. Shylock stands alone.

The production deploys a heavily cut and adapted script, maintaining Shakespeare’s language while making space for a female Shylock and Gobbo and placing some of titular merchant Antonio’s entourage as a fascist Blackshirt and a police constable. Running at approximately two hours, the story is focused and urgent, and the shift of gaze with which it is presented really draws out the oppressive weight of the privilege imbalance within the play. After Shylock’s call to court, we see Antonio cuffed and then promptly released as soon as her back is turned. Seeing Shylock spoken to and spat at as a single mother and matriarch, seeing this self-actualised, dignified woman brought to heel by a gang of brash Christians relishing the chance to humiliate and ruin her and rush to each other’s defense, allows this tragedy of oppression to show its true nature. As charming as the cast are, this is not an easy ride – prepare to watch it through clenched teeth. (Age guidance: 12+.)

Tracy-Ann Oberman says, “It has a been a lifelong dream of mine to bring this play to the stage in a new way, reimagining Shylock as one of the tough, no-nonsense Jewish matriarchs I grew up around. I am delighted this project is finally happening and look forward to sparking debate and enlightening people about a pivotal but largely forgotten part of British history – just how close the establishment were to Oswald Mosley and his British Union of Fascists.” Indeed the design and direction highlight some of the darker side of British history that were at least in your reviewer’s state education completely glossed over, fascism being a big bad that happened somewhere else until we the heroes came to the rescue. Here, it is plain to see the ever-present lurk of antisemitism sitting comfortably within polite society, barking down any challenge to their position; here, the pound of flesh is a fantastical concept dreamt up to satisfy the egotistical mistrust of Antonio, Shylock merely sating her provoker. It becomes real to her only when she perceives that this man and his cronies have taken everything from her that she had carefully guarded and treasured: her most precious keepsakes, her only daughter.

Alongside Oberman’s Shylock are Hannah Morrish as Portia, Raymond Coulthard as Antonio and Arragon, Gavin Fowler as Bassanio, Jessica Dennis as Mary (Gobbo) and Nerissa, Grainne Dromgoole as Jessica, Xavier Starr as Gratiano, Priyank Morjaria as Lorenzo and Maharajah, as well as Alex Zur as Tuba, Duke, Waiter, and Valet. The characters are stunningly acted, every one rich with their own sense of pride, passion, loyalty and vulnerability. Morrish’s Portia is particularly ghastly in her strident racism (“A gentle riddance. —Draw the curtains, go.— Let all of his complexion choose me so.”) and determination to put another woman down, far beyond reason. The courtroom scene is particularly suffocating. She is an effective representation of those who will fiercely pursue the destruction of others if it will preserve even some of their own status quo comforts, prescribed and dominated as they may be (and these characters are very ready to proffer their female loved ones in bargain).

Starr’s Gratiano similarly rings true as an example of someone suppressed and reacting in defense of their suppressors; his camp manner ilicits tickled surprise at the mention of a wife, and murmured advice from Bassanio to contain his “too liberal” “skipping spirit” and “wild behaviour”. Perhaps if he is loudly on their side, they will not turn on him.

Coulthard’s Antonio is fittingly charismatic, convincingly holding influence over Bassanio’s feelings and actions as well as seeming harmless and charming until he’s facing those he perceives to be lesser. Watching strong-willed Jessica get isolated from her mother, then crumble and conform to the style and company of this hateful crowd is crushing precisely because of the recognition we see in her eyes as she chooses to suppress her heritage for the sake of safety and acceptance. “She hath proved herself.” Our strong Jewish women are systematically, brutally trampled and their careful, ritual traditions labelled devilry. They are forced to integrate, and then disintegrate.

The creative team includes set and costume by Liz Cooke, lighting by Rory Beaton and sound by Sarah Weltman and composition by Erran Baron Cohen. Together they create a sumptuous, weighty atmosphere. Simple layers of black, grey, purple and gold, with warm red tones for our first encounter with the confident Shylock and a silk-and-milk palette for Portia. While the photographs, headlines and symbols in the projections are concrete, and the B.U.F. armbands inescapable, the aesthetic of the production also works subtley to paint the mood throughout.

While the framing of the show is striking and immediate, highlighing the ongoing timeliness of the play’s themes, it jars slightly when it kicks in after Shakespeare’s own contrived reconciliations. Shylock has stood destitute among the neat tying up of the victors’ loose ends, and at the final line comes forward, leading the cast in a re-enactment of the battle of Cable Street, urging the audience to shout with them, “They shall not pass!” While the context might be clear enough to some, the change is very sudden and perhaps doesn’t bring everyone along with it that would otherwise be sure to stand and be counted in solidarity with the message. However, this minor uncertainty does nothing to dim the show’s light that shows very clearly: we are all complicit in displacement, and we have the choice to stand up.

The Merchant of Venice 1936 is playing in York Theatre Royal’s Main House at 7:30pm nightly until Saturday 18 November, with additional matinees at 2pm on Thursday 16th and 2:30pm on Saturday 18th (Audio Described and Captioned). Tickets and further information here.

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