Tag Archives: Grainne Dromgoole

The Merchant of Venice 1936


Watford Palace Theatre

THE MERCHANT OF VENICE 1936 at the Watford Palace Theatre


Merchant of Venice 1936

“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:


Beauty and the Beast | ★★★★ | December 2022


Click here to read all our latest reviews




The Playground Theatre



The Playground Theatre

Reviewed – 24th October 2019



“fraught with suspension and quiet terror”


Mrs Manningham (Jemima Murphy) believes she is going mad, for what other explanation could there be when keys, pendants, even paintings go missing and end up amongst her own possessions.

Her husband, Mr. Manningham (Jordan Wallace), grows seemingly impatient with her inability to remember her own small thefts and strange behaviours, and threatens the visit of a doctor who will, no doubt, prescribe the same awful fate for her as befell her mother – the madhouse.

But all is not as it seems in the Manningham household, as is revealed by a kindly though somewhat motivated stranger, Rough (Joe Mcardle).

Murphy and Wallace both play their parts admirably: Murphy flits nervously about like a small bird, trying to disguise bordering hysteria with excitable cheer. Wallace is a force, ruling with restrained, smiling fury. My only criticism for both is their choice of pronunciation. It seems a decision has been made to use modern diction for certain words: ‘yeh’, ‘gonna’, ‘dunno’, sometimes dropping ‘t’s. Perhaps this is an attempt for the performers to feel more honest in what they’re expressing, but the script was written in the ‘30s after all, and throwing in contemporary pronunciation once in a while sounds anachronistic and awkward.

After an excruciatingly tense twenty minutes between Mr and Mrs Manningham in the first half, Mcardle’s Rough is a much-needed respite, and the audience seems to laugh out of sheer relief. Affable and without airs, Mcardle plays his part with a kind of likeable impatience, cutting the play’s unbearable discomfort with ease.

Throughout, we hear a low, ominous rumble, so faint I’m not entirely sure it’s really there. If this is on purpose, it’s awfully clever, gently gaslighting the audience. If it’s not, sound designer Herbert Homer-Warbeck should say it is and take all the credit.

In a way, it’s a shame that the phrase ‘gaslighting’, coined from this very play, is now in such common use, obviously because no-one should gaslight anyone, but also because you know what’s happening in the play from the get. I would be interested to see if they couldn’t condense the story slightly into a 75-minute single act, in order that the plot’s big reveal might be somewhere nearer the end, rather than half way through.

That being said, Gaslight, as directed by Imy Wyatt Corner, is still fraught with suspension and quiet terror, regardless of whether we know where it’s going to end up. On leaving the theatre, my shoulders ached from two hours of sustained panic, and gripping tension.


Reviewed by Miriam Sallon

Photography by William Waterworth




The Playground Theatre until 10th November


Previously reviewed at this venue:
Fanatical – the Musical | ★★★ | November 2018
Sacha Guitry, Ma Fille Et Moi | ★★★½ | January 2019
My Brother’s Keeper | ★★★★ | February 2019
The Jazz Age | ★★★★★ | October 2019


Click here to see our most recent reviews