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.
“There is no denying, however, the zest, energy, and electricity on the stage”
The Royal Family has long been prey for satirists; ever since they stopped chopping your head off for disrespectful behaviour. From eighteenth century paintings, in literature, the press; through to today’s many outlets on the small and big screen and on stage. It is only expected, and to their credit, the Royals accept it now and often go along with it. ‘Spitting Image’ aside, the most successful place them in an alternative scenario. Sue Townsend’s ‘The Queen and I’ deprives the House of Windsor of its royal status and makes them live like normal citizens, while Mike Bartlett’s sharply observant play, ‘King Charles III’, centres on the accession of King Charles and the dissolving of parliament.
“The Windsors: Endgame” follows suit with its ‘what if’ premise, although the writers George Jeffrie and Bert Tyler-Moore tackle the subject with blunter instruments. But what is lacking in nuance is made up for in humour and topicality. I confess to not having watched any of the Channel Four television series that spawned the stage transfer, but understand that the fiction was based around real life events. On stage at the (appropriately) Prince of Wales Theatre, reality seems to be constantly wandering off, only stopped short of disappearing completely by the numerous topical gags that fire through the script.
The Queen has abdicated, and Prince Charles finally gets his hands on the crown. Not without giving us a song first. Harry Enfield clearly relishes the role of the deluded Charles, with echoes of Alan Bennett’s ‘Madness of King George’. Tracy-Ann Oberman’s Camilla is one of the highlights, a mix of Cruella de Ville and Lady Macbeth. Matthew Cottle opens the evening as Edward, throwing in jokes about his stint as Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s production assistant (tea-boy). We are rapidly introduced to pretty much the whole household thereafter. It obviously focuses on Wills and Harry, Kate and Meghan; but Fergie, Andrew, Beatrice and Eugenie are all in the writers’ sightline. The feuds are as exaggerated as the characterisation and the jokes are presented with a fanfare that makes them impossible to miss.
The lack of subtlety places Michael Fentiman’s production in pantomime territory. Albeit not one for all the family. But profanity and sexual innuendo cannot really disguise the predictability of the jokes. Unfortunately, what it does disguise, even dismantles, is the potential cleverness of the plot. But then again, I am obviously missing the point and I concede gracefully, being surrounded by a packed house that is lapping up every moment.
And it has to be admitted there is a lot to cherish here, and once you’re in the mood you start enjoying it as much as the cast are. Kara Tointon and Crystal Condie are delightful as the sparring Kate and Meghan; matched by Ciarán Owens and Tom Durant-Pritchard as Wills and Harry, torn between love and duty and family responsibility (throwing in a bit of accidental wife-swapping too!). The characters on the side-lines are the more interesting: Sophie-Louise Dann is a wonderful Fergie, ultimately standing by Tim Wallers’ naughty but nice cad Andrew; while Jenny Rainsford and Eliza Butterworth are great fun to watch as Beatrice and Eugenie.
Less fun are the impromptu musical numbers which crop up incongruously, and merely serve to repeat many of the jokes that are already in danger of being wrung dry. There is no denying, however, the zest, energy, and electricity on the stage. Try as you might to find fault, you cannot help giving in eventually, and breaking into a reluctant smile. That’s when you realise you are way behind the rest of the audience who have been smiling from the start. Even if The Windsors aren’t for you, give them a break. You’re probably the odd one out.