THE MERCHANT OF VENICE 1936 at the Watford Palace Theatre
“A vivid and moving interpretation. Disturbing, enriching and thought provoking”
Tracy-Ann Oberman’s Shylock stands centre stage at the opening of Brigid Larmour’s brave and provoking adaptation of Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice”; and from thereon she remains in full command of, not just the action, but the unresolved themes. Themes that she manages to turn on their head. It has long been debated whether the play is anti-Semitic or whether it is about anti-Semitism. This show removes the question from the context of the drama and places it smack bang into society as a whole.
Shylock is living under the shadow of fascism in London’s East End in 1936. Greta Zabulyte’s video backdrops, with Sarah Weltman’s soundscape, evoke the tensions that lead up to the battle of Cable Street, in which anti-fascist protesters successfully blockaded a rally of Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts. It is particularly shocking to be reminded that this took place on our home ground. The scenes have more than an echo of Kristallnacht. This political landscape shapes our understanding of the text and gives the characters more depth than even Shakespeare could have imagined.
Oberman gives Shylock due reason for her outrage and desire for revenge. Although she doesn’t shy away from highlighting the less savoury aspects of her personality, she is far less villainous than her persecutors. “If you prick us, do we not bleed” carries a chilling resonance in this setting. Antonio (Raymond Coulthard) and his band of Old Etonians are simultaneously ridiculous and sinister. In particular, Xavier Starr, as Gratiano, captures the essence of the bumbling Bunbury Boy in whose deceptively likeable hands, privilege can become a dangerous weapon. Hannah Morrish cuts a striking Portia, overflowing with aristocratic advantage. A true Mitford sister, you almost expect Joseph Goebbels to spring out from behind the curtain. Antonio, whose “pound of flesh” is so famously demanded of Shylock, comes out slightly more favourably. Coulthard mangers to convey, with subtle facial expressions, a half-hidden dissatisfaction with his victory in court.
Liz Cooke’s set moves between the East End streets and Portia’s brightly lit salons. The more light that is shed on the stage, however, the less we see of the underlying tensions. Some scenes dip, and consequently pull back Larmour’s passionately paced staging. But, with skilful editing the problematical finale with its dubious happy ending is replaced with something far, far more powerful. Oberman refuses to let Shylock be written out of the story, and she remains perched on the edge of the stage – a formidable presence – until she returns to lead the resistance to Mosley’s ‘Blackshirts’. It is a significant and unsettling adjunct to the story.
“The Merchant of Venice” is a difficult text, with difficult characters. Four hundred years before it was written, the entire Jewish community had been expelled from England, and not officially readmitted until the mid-seventeenth century. Four hundred years after it was written, the human drama is crucially relevant. Shakespeare’s play is contradictory, but Larmour’s, and Oberman’s, message is clear as glass. Shattering that glass doesn’t diminish it – the relevance is reflected, if not magnified, in each jagged fragment. This is a vivid and moving interpretation. Disturbing, enriching and thought provoking.
Reviewed on 2nd March 2023
by Jonathan Evans
Photography by Marc Brenner
Previously reviewed at this venue: