By Jay Darcy
There is perhaps no Shakespeare play more controversial in modern times than The Merchant of Venice. With the Holocaust in living memory, and antisemitism on the rise, staging this play always raises eyebrows.
The play, obviously, follows a merchant in Venice, Antonio – who defaults on a large loan provided by a Jewish moneylender, Shylock. Shakespeare relied on antisemitic stereotypes to create the play’s antagonist – stereotypes which have not gone away, which led to a drastic rise in antisemitism in the 1930s, and continue to permeate Western society.
Thus, a 2020s staging of The Merchant of Venice is quite surprising. But this is no mere restaging of the classic play. Rather, it’s a retelling, a reimagining, and, most importantly, a reclamation.
Based on an idea by Tracy-Ann Oberman, the play is relocated to 1930s London, during the growth of the British Union of Fascists and the 1936 Battle of Cable Street – which Oberman’s Jewish ancestors were a part of.
“With the city on the brink of political unrest, fascism sweeping across Europe and Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists threatening a paramilitary march through the Jewish East End, strong-willed single mother Shylock runs a pawnbroking business from her house in Cable Street where Mosley will march. When charismatic, antisemitic aristocrat Antonio comes to her for a loan, a high-stakes deal is struck. Will Shylock take her revenge, and who will pay the ultimate price?”
Oberman, who stars in the play as a sympathetic, female Shylock, said:
“It has a been a lifelong dream of mine to bring this play to the stage in a new way, reimagining Shylock as a 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.”
Oberman is one of the nation’s best-known television actors, memorably portraying murderer Chrissie Watts, the Lady Macbeth of the East End, in EastEnders – and, more recently, appearing in the critically acclaimed It’s a Sin. I have been a fan of Oberman’s work since I was seven, when she guest-starred as Yvonne Hartman (the Head of the Torchwood Institute and director of Torchwood London) in the two-part finale of the second season of Doctor Who.
Oberman is committed to fighting antisemitism. However, she has received backlash for some of her opinions (in particular, her pro-Israel views) and methods (just last year, she was forced to pay substantial damages to an academic she accused of antisemitism). But whatever you think about Oberman’s political views, one cannot deny her sheer talent, nor the urgency of rooting out antisemitism. This reimagining of Shakespeare’s most controversial play is part of that fight.
The play also stars Raymond Coulthard (Hotel Bablyon, Casualty, Mr Selfridge) as the protagonist-turned-antagonist, Antonio, the titular Merchant – as well as Prince Arragon.
The Merchant of Venice 1936 has been developed by Watford Palace Theatre in association with HOME Manchester – playing at both venues, ahead of a UK tour in Autumn. The tour will begin with the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Swan Theatre.
Oberman said: “I started my career in the Swan RSC back in 1992 and so to play there again as Shylock is a ‘pinch me’ moment.”
Whilst I enjoyed studying Shakespeare at GCSE and A Level, I do not particularly enjoy watching Shakespeare. But I’m a sucker for a retelling – and, as an ethnic and religious minority myself, I look forward to seeing a Jewish actress reclaim an antisemitic story.
The Merchant of Venice 1936 opened at Watford Palace Theatre on February 27, where it will play until March 11, before transferring to HOME, Manchester (Theatre 1), where it runs from March 15 to 25. The UK tour begins at RSC Swan Theatre on September 21, where it plays until October 7, and is currently running until November 18, with more dates to be announced.
Powered By Spotlight Studios
0161 275 2930 University of Manchester’s Students’ Union, Oxford Rd, Manchester M13 9PR