Looking back at a resurgence into radical politics, tribes and a disillusioned society, The Merchant of Venice (1936) takes on an old problem with fresh eyes.
With a focus on classism, virtue and cross-dressing, Shakespeare’s 1600 play vilifies the rich Jewish creditor Shylock (Tracy-Ann Oberman) for lending funds to the wealthy Christian, Antonio (Raymond Coulthard). While it is expected that moneylenders charge higher rates of interest, Shylock’s contract cuts close to the bone, requiring a pound of flesh if Antonio defaults on his payment. Nevertheless, the degrading oath is chosen to belittle the Christian man who demoralises and persecutes the Jewish community while slighting Shylock for creating opportunities outside of her expected position. Now content in painting Shylock as the villain for using the system for her own survival, The Merchant of Venice weaves a tale of bigotry and mercy that throws each character's control, religion and integrity into question.
Inspired by current social tensions, director Brigid Larmour seats four sets of tables on the HOME stage with extra seating provided for audience members. Mingled among the action, the audience can act as a backdrop or opt to be part of a movement on stage. As questionable actions go unpunished and communities begin to fight back, the show walks a fine line between the past and the present as it highlights how working-class people have made their mark on British history.
The foundations of Shakespeare’s story remain in place, but here Shylock becomes a poised but jaded working mother, ready to serve her own vigilante justice. Alongside a committed cast who radiate defiance, the show twists Shakespeare’s brutal characterisations and toxic personalities into a surprisingly hopeful finale.
Reframed in 1936, director Larmour centres the conflict around the rise of Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists (BUF) and how the East End community came together in protest during the Battle of Cable Street on Oct 4th. As a political figure, founder and leader of the BUF, Sir Mosley’s discord helped stoke racial tensions into the mainstream. Xavier Starr’s emotive characterisations meld into many modern, radical figures as the obnoxious Gratiano and police constable. However, this production is almost a straight retelling of Shakespeare’s play, with Mosley projected as the backdrop. There is no need for characters to spew the same superficial mythology of a better Britain that looks to its past for inspiration as the plays brutal treatment of Shylock remains a more poignant and shocking punishment to watch play out.
Larmour and Oberman’s adaption and relationship with Shakespeare’s work reminds audiences why The Merchant of Venice continues to be an arresting and unsettling story. Placed at a point when men had more power and influence, its reimagining forces you to examine your own part in shaping and grappling with current sexism, anti-Semitism and racism. It is a hefty production that continues to challenge the members who interact with Shakespeare’s work but in doing so allows the story to reach new heights and audiences.
Tickets are available via the HOMEmcr link