If you’re going to update Shakespeare, you might as well go for broke. And that’s exactly what Brigid Larmour and Tracy-Ann Oberman have done with their reimagined Merchant of Venice, produced by Watford Palace Theatre and Home Manchester, in association with the RSC. They have set it in the East End of London at the time of the Battle of Cable Street in 1936; this was the march organised by Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists, designed to intimidate the people living in an area that contained a large number of Jewish and other immigrants. Up to 5,000 Blackshirts, maybe 7,000 police and innumerable counter-protestors clashed on the streets, and it’s considered to be the turning point where 1930s British fascism began its downfall.
Given that this took place less than ninety years ago, it is extraordinary how it has been largely forgotten or indeed, never learned by most of the population; and this production serves a very useful purpose in bringing it back into our minds. It intertwines superbly well with Shakespeare’s play, with Antonio and his friends adopting the roles of BUF activists, Portia seen as a Diana Mitford-type character, and Shylock as a Jewish outsider, emblematic of what the fascists would regard as everything that’s wrong with the country. And it’s more relevant today than ever; the news radio on the drive home after the show reported a speech by the Home Secretary that was described by an interviewee as being further to the right than anything ever said by the British National Party in its heyday.
At just two hours running time including an interval, the play is, by necessity, heavily cut. But it’s not a brutal cut; it’s a sensitive cut, keeping all the essential themes, plot threads and great speeches. Shakespeare must have sat back and congratulated himself on a good day at the office having written about The Quality of Mercy, All that Glisters is not Gold, and Hath not a Jew Eyes. Antonio, Bassanio, Gratiano, Portia and of course Shylock are all well-written, memorable characters, and this is without doubt one of Shakespeare’s Big Plays.
Unfortunately, one of the major problems with The Merchant of Venice to a modern audience is not so much the exploration of antisemitism, but the plot content of Act Five. It feels like the whole story is wrapped up after Shylock gets his (her, in this instance) come-uppance for not showing that aforementioned quality of mercy. Thus the final scenes concerning how Bassanio and Gratiano have given away their rings to “complete strangers” often appear as an afterthought – but are necessary to give way to the usual happy ever after Shakespearean comedy ending. In this production, aligning so strongly 1930s fascism with the story of Shylock and those general themes of antisemitism, racism and othering, this ending seems all the more superfluous; even though they rattle through it at breakneck speed. For me, the final scene, where the ensemble reveal their They Shall Not Pass protest on Cable Street, comes as a rather disjointed add-on. However, the cynic in me admired the device of ensuring a standing ovation at the end.
With strong use of vintage footage of the Blackshirts and newspaper headlines of the time projected on to the backdrop, Liz Cooke’s design brings you firmly into the drab, grey East End, although Portia’s glamorous outfit makes a superb contrast. The three caskets laid out on the basic kitchen trolley provide a nice visual suggestion of the idea of a stark choice, and the graffiti on Shylock’s door tells its own story.
The idea of making Shylock female is integral to the entire directorial vision of the play. Her characterisation was inspired by Tracy-Ann Oberman’s own great-grandmother, an immigrant to London from Russia to work in a factory. When you change the gender of a well-known character it inevitably makes you see that character in a new way, and this is no exception. This Shylock is a matriarch, proud and protective of her family, and even more of an outsider being a woman in a man’s world. It disgusts her to have to interact with the likes of Antonio, who has publicly reviled her in the past and avowed he will probably do so in the future, Still, business is business, and sometimes you just have to trade with your enemies. Tracy-Ann Oberman’s performance is simply a knock-out. Her presence, her expressions, the glare of her eyes, her pride, her resilience and her eventual defeat are all perfectly pitched – plus she adopts a powerful, alienating foreign accent which exemplifies her otherness. She is just superb.
I also enormously enjoyed Raymond Coulthard’s performance as both Antonio and Arragon. His Antonio is dignified, controlled, suppressed, and resigned; you almost forget he’s a fascist. As Arragon he gives us a splendid comic turn as the vain, flowery prince; more believable than a mere fop but truly wallowing in the sound of his own voice. Xavier Starr gives a terrific professional debut as Gratiano, his height emphasising a kind of lofty condescension and upper class bonhomie, but he descends into the gutter with his superbly delivered antisemitic vitriol. Hannah Morrish impresses as a rather aloof and superior Portia, later taking the guise of a very no-nonsense lawyer. There’s also excellent support from Gavin Fowler as Bassanio and Jessica Dennis as Nerissa and Mary Gobbo.
Brevity is the soul of wit, and the comparatively short running time for this production enormously helps in keeping the pace up and captivating our interest completely. If you’re expecting any kind of traditional production you may be disappointed, but this new slant is totally justified and brings a whole new insight into the play. Not perfect, but full of wow factor. After the production leaves the Swan on 7th October, the tour continues to High Wycombe, Malvern, Bromley, Cardiff, Wilton’s Music Hall, York, Chichester and Manchester, and returns to Stratford for another three weeks in January 2024.
Production photos by Marc Brenner