War in Europe, the far right in the streets with their dog whistles, and a sharp rise in anti-Semitism: it’s not hard to see parallels between the inter-war period and today’s political landscape, where Putin invades a neighbouring country on the pretext of getting rid of ‘fascists’.
Some would see it as a brave decision by actor Tracy-Ann Oberman and writer-director Brigid Larmour to relocate The Merchant of Venice to London’s East End during the Battle of Cable in 1936. Shlylock is transformed into a Jewish matriarch, a widow whose losses – both personal and financial – eventually become too great for her. In this swirling production, gangs of Jew-baiting bully boys – rendered here as Bullingdon Club boys – roam the capital’s dark streets spewing their rats lies and looking to cosh easy targets.
The multimedia production allows us to witness not only political thuggery but also seemingly ordinary members of the public in their ill-fated dalliance with the British Union of Fascists, as they march in red armbands flanked by sympathetic police. Antonio, for his part, bestrides the stage in jackbooted swagger as he suavely evades the bond he owes to Shylock.
Overman’s portrayal of Shylock shows us how she has had to fight for survival to keep her family together, despite being slandered as a dog: ‘Since I am a dog, beware my fangs!’.
Shylock is betrayed first by her daughter, Jessica, who runs off with the Christian Lorenzo taking her money and jewellery, and then once again by both Bassanio and the law who use her own lawful bond to exact cunning revenge. Oberman, in a masterfully impressive performance, is at turns the strong and proud matriarch, the cunning businesswoman, and, finally, the defeated mother and Jewess.
A truly shocking moment in the play comes when, succumbing to the court’s sentence, she is ‘christened’ by a throw of a glass of water in her face by a yob. Accused of base usury, she is herself cruelly misused and we see how the law, class and bigotry conspire to rob Shylock of justice from Antonio (a noted performance from Raymond Coulthard).
Other directorial decisions shine fresh light on the play’s troubling anti-Semitism: Lancelot Gobbo becomes Mary Gobbo (Jessica Dennis), an Irish maid who scurrilously delights in mocking her former mistress Shylock behind her back with gross caricatures of her behaviour. The transformation deftly shows how recycled racism is often the result of a desire to be accepted and to not be cast out with the ‘other’.
Oberman visibly winces when then cruellest part of the sentence is handed down to Shylock: agree to convert to Christianity. If this is Christian behaviour, duplicitous, scheming and vengeful, what kind of sanctuary is there for a Jew in such a country and its religion?
The ending, with its battle cries of ‘They shall not pass!’, seems stapled on and unnecessary but at one with the production’s insistence on resisting tyranny.
The Merchant of Venice (1936) is at Home, Manchester from 15 to 25 March 2023. Age guidance 12+