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Reimagined Merchant of Venice is a Thrilling Success

Tracy-Ann Oberman (Shylock) with protesters. Photo courtesy of Mark Brenner © RSC.

The Merchant of Venice 1936, The RSC Swan Theatre, until 7 October 2023 then touring, returning to the Swan from 24 January to 10 February 2024.

Review by Charles Barker

Reimagined, reworked, retitled: This version of Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice is truly remarkable.

The Jewish money-lender Shylock is a woman; Antonio, who faces losing a pound of flesh, is a Jew-hating fascist; Portia, impossibly posh and glamorous, must be based on Diana Mitford, the wife of Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Union of Fascists in the years leading up to the Second World War.

The reworking doesn’t end there. This Merchant plies her trade not in Venice, but in the London of 1936 – hence the title – when Hitler-admiring Mosley was spreading his brand of hate. And the context is the famous Battle of Cable Street, when 5,000 marching black-shirted fascists were sent packing by a unique alliance of tens of thousands of local people, trade unionists, socialists and Jewish groups.

This reimagining of a complex play which explores issues such as intolerance, prejudice and mercy, was developed by director Brigid Larmour and Tracy-Ann Oberman, who also plays Shylock – and it’s a thrilling success.

Tracy-Ann Oberman (Shylock) and other cast members. Photo courtesy of Mark Brenner © RSC.

Having Shylock as a woman is an inspired idea, especially when Oberman plays the part so brilliantly, creating a completely believable combination of ruthless moneylender, protective mother, and vulnerable woman. We can feel the hurt when her tormentors despise her as “The Jew”, denying her any shred of humanity.

Her drive for revenge fails and she’s left a broken woman, forced to give up her religion and betrayed by her daughter.

That’s not the only great performance. The cast are all superb but Raymond Coulthard is outstanding as Antonio. Again, he’s completely believable as a man who displays great friendship in the most difficult circumstances, and can face death with dignity, and yet treats Shylock with utter contempt, simply because she’s a Jew.

He proves his versatility by lightening the mood with a great comic turn as Arragon, one of Portia’s failed suitors.

Hannah Morrish plays Portia with icy superiority and manages also to convince as the lawyer who saves Antonio and condemns Shylock to failure.

The set is simple: Newsreel footage and clever use of backdrops remind us of the hatred which erupted on to the streets of London in 1936, a grim echo of the hatred being revealed on the stage.

But for this reworked production, Larmour and Oberman have one last twist up their sleeve, and it’s a good one. You’ll have to see it for yourself, but after all the bile that’s been spilled on stage, it sends you on your way smiling and perhaps even a little inspired.


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