Last weekend saw over 100,000 people attend a rally against antisemitism in central London that took place against reports of a steep rise in hate crime – mostly aimed at the UK Jewish population – and the backdrop of renewed hostilities in Gaza. When trying to understand antisemitism from a literary and historical perspective, it seemed aposite for Director Brigid Larmour and Tracy – Ann Oberman to reset Shakespeare’s problematic text amidst the rise of fascism in the East End of London in the mid 1930’s. The result allows us to view the actions of the protagonists through an entirely new lens, throwing light on their motives and attitudes and giving the play a fresh and exciting perspective for a modern audience.
Oberman had long expressed a desire to portray Shylock as an East End Jewish matriarch (in tribute to her late Grandmother Annie) and after convincing Larmour of its theatrical value it was a logical step to see Antonio (Raymond Coulthard) and Bassiano (Gavin Fowler) as proto-fascist Mosley sympathisers. They both despise Shylock yet are forced to turn to him for financial assistance in order to allow Bassiano to successfully woo the lofty Portia (Hannah Morrish). As we know, this deal does not go according to plan for Antonio and Shylock insists on her literal ‘pound of flesh’ in court, before having the tables turned on her in the final act by an unsympathetic court.
The original text lends itself well to this reimagining with only small changes in emphasis and character required to convince. Both the change of sex of Shylock and the reimagination of the play to the new time period imbue the text with a freshness and vibrancy that grips the audience from the opening scene and carries through the entire pacy two-hour runtime. It is still shocking to hear the epithet ‘Jew’ spat out by the cast so often and with such disdain, all the more so when the Costume and Set Design by Liz Cooke is so recognisably 20th Century, with authentic video and newspaper footage forming a video wall backdrop to the events unfolding on stage, all to the soundtrack of glass shattering….
The often forgotten ‘inconvenient truth’ of the upper classes in 1930’s Britain is that a significant number were fiercely anti-semitic and often fervently fascist in their attitudes, Portia and Nerissa (Jessica Dennis) embody this attitude perfectly here, portraying both as Mitford Esque debutantes seduced by the suave manners and well fitting uniforms of Antonio and Gratiano (Xavier Starr). Morrish is deceptively repellent as Portia and even her famous ‘quality of mercy’ speech in the final act is subverted here, shown to be a lawyerly trick to enable a verdict to be brought against Shylock from a woman merely interested in ‘getting her man’.
In the supporting roles, Coulthard gives sexual motive to Antonio’s support of Bassiano but this thread is not fully explored and is sacrificed for pace and clarity and a concentration on the primary storyline. In a similar vein, both Jessica (Grainne Dromgoole) and Lorenzo (Priyank Morjaria) show glimpses of the issues that a mixed Christian/Jewish marriage would face in this world, but a lack of character exposition gives us limited sympathy for Jessica in the new and cruel world she has married into. Of all the secondary storylines Portia and her three caskets fares best; used primarily as light relief here, it gives some credence to the play being classed as a comedy in the First Folio and allows some semblance of a contrived ‘happy ending’ to be reached by the conclusion.
But this is a production that puts the weight very much on the central character of Shylock, pulling the audience towards sympathy for a character that is traditionally portrayed in a poor light. Firstly, Oberman establishes that she (and her race) are constantly belittled and traduced by Antonio and the other merchants of the city, the ‘untermensch’ mentality of fascism towards Judaism allowing this motive to be firmly established in Shylock’s later behaviour. The breaking of the bond between Mother and daughter following Jessica’s desertion adding further fuel to the fire of hatred felt by Shylock and when this is balanced against equal dislike and distrust from the opposite side, then the ‘quality of mercy’ can be seen as a plea for moderation from both sides; The point is hammered home in the final added scene, portraying the resistance to fascism at Cable Street in 1936, the shouts of ‘Stronger Together’ across the religious divide, give a fascinating interpretation of the play and one which resonates with modern audiences.
Shakespeare’s intention with his characterisation of Shylock has been constantly debated in the four centuries since the play was first performed and whether he meant it or not, the crude stereotype that has developed has done immense harm to the perception of the Jewish people ever since. Oberman has done service to both the Bard and Judaism with this more measured and balanced portrayal, which also doubles as a warning from history of the perils of extremism and intolerance on both sides.
Verdict: A superb reimagining brought to the stage with powerful conviction and authenticity.
Playing until 2nd December, https://homemcr.org/production/the-merchant-of-venice-1936/
Reviewer: Paul Wilcox
Reviewed: 29th November 2023
North West End UK Rating: