Andy Howells reviews The Merchant of Venice 1936 starring Tracy-Ann Oberman as Shylock.
It’s not unusual for a Shakespeare classic to be given a radical update, but visitors to Cardiff’s New Theatre this week will get more than that when they take their seats for this new presentation of The Merchant of Venice 1936.
Directed and adapted by Brigid Larmour from an idea by co-creator Tracy Ann-Oberman the action of the Shakespeare classic is reimagined from sixteenth century Italy to the stark, dramatic setting of London in 1936.
However, this is London at its most unsettling as fascism sweeps across Europe. Oswald Mosley and the British Union of Fascists threaten a paramilitary march through the Jewish East End of London as Matriarchal single mother Shylock continues to run a pawnbroking business from her house in Cable Street. As charismatic, antisemitic aristocrat Antonio visits Shylock for a loan, a deal is struck, but ultimately a price will be paid.
The genius of The Merchant of Venice 1936 is that the play puts us right at one of the largely forgotten moments of British History. The Battle of Cable Street saw the Metropolitan Police protecting a march by members of Mosley’s British Union of Fascists on Cable Street. Ultimately, they clashed with an alliance of Jewish, Catholic, protestant and atheist Eastenders who stood united by setting up barricades so that the BUF could not pass. It is certainly not a great moment for the mood or mindset of Britain as a backdrop of video and newspaper headlines in praise of Moseley and his fascists illustrates. But it really is inspiring to see how Shylock and her peers pull together against all odds as the narrative unfolds and serves as a tribute to those who stood against the aggressors at the time.
The Merchant of Venice 1936 is written and performed from the heart. The no-nonsense Jewish matriarch that Shylock has become is based on real subjects adding a very real dimension and the performance of a lifetime for Tracy Ann-Oberman (the first female Shylock).
Raymond Coulthard gives a wonderfully devilish performance as Antonio while Xavier Starr offers diverse and memorable contrasts as Gratiano and a Police Constable. Praise though, must really go to the entire cast for driving this powerful piece of theatre from strength to strength over its two-hour journey.
The plays final impactful and moving moments as the cast break the fourth wall and unite with members of the audience so that the fascists will not pass will linger in our memories for years to come.
The Merchant of Venice 1936 continues at Cardiff’s New Theatre until November 4. Visit website for ticket details.