Tuesday, April 23

The Merchant of Venice 1936 – The Criterion Theatre

Relocated from the traditional Venice of the 16th century, to 1930’s East End of London, this thoroughly re-worked and re-freshed version of The Merchant of Venice, uses a different period in history to tell its story.  The outline of the story remains unchanged.  Antonio (Raymond Coulthard) hopes to assist his friend Bassiano (Gavin Fowler) who wishes to court the wealthy Portia (Hannah Morrish); by obtaining a loan from Shylock (Tracey-Ann Oberman).  Antonio suffers financial setbacks, and cannot repay the loan, unfortunately, the penalties for this are not financial, Shylock wants her pound of flesh.  And yes, you noticed that Shylock is a woman! 

Oberman imagined a Jewish matriarch, inspired by her grandmother who fled an antisemitic country to arrive in London in the hope of finding a less oppressive country to live in.  Collaborating with director Brigid Larmour, Oberman’s Shylock is multi-layered, blending strength with vulnerability transporting this female Jewish moneylender into 1936, when Britain was a hotbed of fascism.  This theme of Jewish oppression runs throughout the play, and has been done so successfully, that it feels like Shakespeare is still with us, adapting his own work.

This play of morals is intensified by its re-setting in 1936, the period of the British Union of Fascists led by Oswald Mosley, a friend of Hitler, and extremely antisemitic.  The targeting of Jews inflames Shylock, and the scenes with Antonio, who is antisemitic, demonstrate this undercurrent of persecution, finally erupting with the court scene where Shylock will not back down on her punishment. 

Photo: Marc Brenner

The production as a whole is intense, the play written in 1598, intersects with Britain’s more recent history creating a tinderbox of antisemitic hate, and in this case, hate spawns hate.  The costumes designed by Liz Cooke are to be commended, as they are a huge part of the 1930’s theme, and the video compositions (Greta Zabulyte) and sound design (Sarah Weltman) whip up the mood of this era.  Oberman leads a strong cast, but with Shylock’s strength we also see a vulnerability to her character, Shylock who is a moneylender, and is clearly used to setting terms and keeping to them, is a strong person in her community, but the persecution of the Jews, leads to her family living in fear of the marauders.  A human side to Shylock is rarely portrayed, which may be due to the writing being from different period, Jews were expelled from Britain in 1290 and were not re-admitted until the mid-seventeenth century, so Shakespeare would have had very few examples to inspire his writing.

There have been many attempts to update Shakespeare, not always successfully, but this adaptation feels like it adds something to Shakespeare’s work, the storyline remains largely intact, but this versions feels more human, characters have more feelings, Antonio’s friendship with Bassiano seems closer, Shylock arouses some sympathy, Portia’s range of emotions, from love, through to indignity, as Bassiano betrays her with how easily he gives away her ring.

One cannot be unmoved by the strength of the supporting videos, Shylock standing alone against the fascists is powerful.  Oberman puts in a towering performance as Shylock, and her contribution towards developing this idea is evident in her enthusiastic performance.

If you happen to be in London before the 23rd March, go along to see a successful adaptation of a Shakespeare play!  To book go to https://merchantofvenice1936.co.uk/

Reviewer: Caroline Worswick

Reviewed: 21st February 2024

North West End UK Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.