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The Merchant of Venice 1936

  • Theatre, Shakespeare
  • 3 out of 5 stars
  • Recommended
The Merchant of Venice 1936, Criterion Theatre, 2024
Photo: Marc Brenner

Time Out says

3 out of 5 stars

Tracy-Ann Oberman’s East End-set attempt to confront the antisemitism in Shakespeare’s play is thrillingly bold

Nothing points to how obstinately alive Shakespeare is within our culture than the fact we can’t – or won’t! – simply ditch a play like ‘The Merchant of Venice’.

While far less antisemitic than contemporary works like Marlowe’s ‘The Jew of Malta’ – by Elizabethan standards it was perhaps even mildly progressive – there is no other playwright whose patently problematic play about a devious Jewish moneylender would remain front and centre of the theatrical canon in 2024.

Which brings us to ‘The Merchant of Venice 1936’. A passion project of its star and co-adaptor, the Jewish actor Tracy-Ann Oberman, it doesn’t so much reclaim Shakespeare’s play for the Jewish community as aggressively repurpose it.

Directed by Brigid Larmour, it relocates the action to the East End of London in 1936, where Oberman’s moneylender Shylock is a proud Jewish matriarch and emigree from Eastern Europe. Around her corner of London, Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists are stirring, gearing up for the infamous/ignominious march that culminated in the Battle of Cable Street. Here, many of the gentile characters are explicitly black-shirted Mosley supporters, and the ones who aren’t are happily pals with the racists.

Let‘s be real here: this doesn’t entirely make sense. Oberman’s shtetl-accented Shylock is far more sympathetic than her tormentors, but Shylocks generally are these days. Her insistence on having her ‘pound of flesh’ from Antonio – the titular merchant, who defaults on a loan to her – is clearly somewhat mitigated by the fact he’s a big old Nazi, but the fact she’s essentially asking for his death means you can only make her look so reasonable. Even not taking that bit literally (I mean we’re not taking the ‘Venice’ bit literally), the rabble-rousing finale set at the Battle of Cable Street is a truly bold move – in its way the equivalent of shoving in an epilogue to ‘Hamlet’ where you discover the Danish prince is actually fine. And the context is now so specific that while the text has been heavily edited, there is stuff that feels totally off-topic, notably the whole major plot line about Portia (Hannah Morrish) and her suitors.

But again, this production isn’t trying to make nice with Shakespeare. Directors can bend over backwards to discern modern nuance in this play. Here it feels more like Oberman and co have decided to tell a story about creeping fascism in ‘30s Britain – clearly with some intended parallels to today – and ‘The Merchant of Venice’ has simply been hijacked as their medium, possibly as an act of penance. It’s a truly gutsy move, and even if it doesn’t always make sense, it largely holds together through its sheer self-belief. You can sometimes become numb to characters referring to Shylock as things like ‘the Jew’, but here it stings every time. The Cable Street finale makes questionable dramatic sense… but it’s spine-tingling nonetheless.

It’s a production that doesn’t exactly work… but it doesn’t not work either.

Andrzej Lukowski
Written by
Andrzej Lukowski


£19.25-£96.25. Runs 2hr
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