Shakespeare is something I cannot bear to watch unless it has been revised. I’m not just talking an aesthetic reimagining, à la, the Royal Shakespeare Company, but, rather, a radical reinvention. It does not have to be quite as radical as, say, & Juliet, but it needs to be given new relevance. Shakespeare dealt with issues that remain relevant, sure, but why should I care about a bunch of rich White people with their rich White problems? I just don’t. I can’t.
No Shakespeare play is quite as controversial as The Merchant of Venice, especially with the recent rise in antisemitism. But that’s also why it remains relevant – antisemitism was even worse in the 20th century than it was in the 16th, and even with the Holocaust in living memory, we seem to be repeating history.
The play follows a merchant in Venice (obviously), Antonio, who defaults on a large loan provided by a Jewish moneylender, Shylock. Shylock agrees to lend a sum of money to Antonio’s close friend, Bassanio, without interest, upon one condition: if Antonio were unable to repay it at the specified date, Shylock may take a pound of Antonio’s flesh.
The Merchant of Venice 1936 relocates the action to the UK in the 1930s, with the rise of the British Union of Fascists. The play follows the lead up to the Battle of Cable Street in 1936: a clash between the Metropolitan Police, sent to protect a march by members of the British Union of Fascists, led by Oswald Mosley, and various de jure and de facto anti-fascist demonstrators, including local trade unionists, communists, anarchists, British Jews, supported in particular by Irish workers, and socialist groups.
The play is based on an idea by actress Tracy-Ann Oberman (EastEnders, Friday Night Dinner), whose (Jewish) ancestors were involved in the “battle”. She has long wanted to reclaim Shylock. In fact, Oberman stars as a sympathetic, female Shylock – a single mother who works hard for her daughter, amidst all the hardships she faces, as a woman, an immigrant, and a Jew.
Herein lies two more reasons I wanted to see this play: it is not merely a retelling; it is a reclamation. As an ethnic and religious minority myself, I love seeing marginalised peoples reclaim that which has oppressed them. Further, I have been a fan of Oberman’s work since I was seven (I have watched Doctor Who since the first season of the reboot, and whilst Oberman only appeared in two episodes, her character, Yvonne Hartman, remains one of my favourites).
In the original play, Antonio is unashamedly antisemitic, which was not a problem for Shakespearean audiences, but to a modern British audience, a protagonist cannot be an antisemite. This adaptation, whilst rewriting Shylock, does not have to alter Antonio at all; it lays his antisemitism and brutality bare. Thus, 1936 is perhaps not so much a revision of Merchant as it is a revelation of the play that was always there.
Antonio is played by Raymond Coulthard (Emmerdale, Hotel Babylon), who is deliciously evil (and irresistibly punchable) in the role.
The play opens with a Jewish ceremony (a prologue, of sorts), led by Shylock, who speaks Hebrew, before the main action of the play begins. The audience members sat in the cabaret-like stage seats were encouraged to drink fake shots of alcohol. Shylock is proudly Jewish. The ceremony is a beautiful celebration of one’s identity, and knowing the fate that Shylock is to face (her loss of assets and forced conversion to Christianity) makes it quite emotional.
Shylock, whilst sympathetic, is not the most likeable, but that’s sort of the point. She is a person, just like the rest of us – flawed, forever learning, and human. Oberman’s take on Shylock’s Hath not a Jew eyes? monologue is powerful and poignant; I can feel my eyes swelling up just thinking about it, especially because I, living centuries after the play was written, relate to it. There are people in this world that think my life is worth less than theirs because I am a person of colour, a descendent of immigrants, and a Muslim; people who hardly see me as human – but hath I not eyes?
That’s what makes this play so powerful and so devastatingly heartbreaking. How far have we come, really? The play projects images of fascist rallies, and even a Mosley speech, on the back of the set. They do not look too different to racist and anti-immigrant marches happening today – think about the recent anti-refugee protests in Knowsley, Merseyside (the hometown of my colleague, Sarah, who I watched the play with). Even after six million Jews were massacred in the Holocaust, antisemitism remains prevalent and has risen in recent years, especially because of the Israel-Palestine conflict, with innocent, ordinary Jews blamed for the atrocities committed by a country.
The play ends with the residents of Cable Street coming together in solidarity and standing against the fascists. The actors encouraged those in the stage seats to stand up and join them in the protest and chant, “Thou shall not pass”, a powerful display of solidarity. Cast-members also pulled two people from the front row up on to the steps; this looked a little clumsy, and I was a little distracted by their awkward reactions, but it succeeded in creating an immersive atmosphere.
The decision to have onstage seating for this play was interesting. It did not add much to the play until the very end. But, on reflection, I think there’s a deeper meaning. The audience, dressed in their own contemporary clothing, sat at either side of the stage, like voyeurs, reliving horrific events that happened close to a century ago and are destined to happen again, unless we come together to stop it.
Indeed, at the end of the play, Oberman broke out of character and dropped her heavy accent. She told us, “We must stand together”.
That’s how you end a play.
The Merchant of Venice 1936 runs at HOME (Theatre 1) until March 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.