merchant of Venice 1936 at the RSC Theatre

The Merchant of Venice 1936

Swan Theatre

It seems a long time now since I’ve been able to say that I think something at the RSC is a must see production, but this one is. It’s stunning. Perhaps it’s the result of the RSC working in collaboration with Trafalgar Theatre Productions and Eilene Davidson Productions.

Director Brigid Larmour and Tracy-Ann Oberman have cut and adapted the text somewhat to create an extremely tight, fast-moving production which tells its story directly and powerfully in the clearest production of this play that I’ve seen. Set in 1936 this Merchant is about the conflict between the fascists and the Jews, drawing on the Cable Street riots when Oswald Mosely’s gang attacked the east end of London but were opposed by not only the Jews but the local multi-ethnic community, the local white working class and a variety of east end religious groups.

There are several outstanding performances. Hannah Morrish is stunningly elegant and standoffishly cold in her beautiful dress. She quickly becomes the huntress in her jodhpurs, boots and crop. She’s a strong woman, as was Nancy Mitford, both manipulator and victim it seems at first. The song in the scene where Bassanio chooses the casket where the last word of each line rhymes with ‘lead’ is a brilliant touch. That is how fascists get their own way unlike the other differently ethnic suitors. She is unrecognisable when in disguise as the judge. No wonder neither Antonio nor Bassanio recognises her as she manipulates the course of Shylock’s trial in order to get her own way and defeat Shylock. The ‘quality of mercy’ speech is far from a plea for human values but a glaring example of hypocrisy. It is never clear why she wants the penniless Bassanio (Gavin Fowler) but obvious that he wants her money and perhaps her status.

Raymond Coulthard is a chillingly unsmiling, dour, grumpy, inscrutable Antonio. Rather than feel sympathetic to him the audience cannot work out why he should want to lend Bassanio money. He is also manipulative. When Bassanio has got his agreement that he will borrow the money Bassanio kisses him on the forehead, eventually, but Antonio insists on a kiss on the lips, not the usual result of infatuation or deep love, but rather of powerful manipulation and desired domination. Antonio’s all black costume contrasts Bassanio’s white jacket and pullover, but they are the same, really, without shade or colour.

All the ‘love’ relationships are flawed and puzzling. Jessica (Grainne Dromgoole) uses the opportunity to escape from an oppressive, imprisoning mother but it’s not clear what Lorenzo (Priyank Morjaria) sees in her and why he wants her, particularly as he is a fascist and she a Jew. There is no such thing in the play as love.

Some audience members will see Portia as delicious eye candy. Others will see Lorenzo as such. Yet others will lust after Antonio. They are all drawn into the play and tricked into infatuation with appearances.

The star of the show (but it’s not really a show – more a ghastly exhibition) is Tracy-Ann Oberman as Shylock. She said in an interview that she drew on her grandmother’s experiences of prejudice and the programme points out that while there were few Jews in London at the time Shakespeare was writing a few were money lenders, both male and female. So it makes sense to have Shylock as female and heightens the possessive (and ultimately destructive) relationship between a single parent mother and her daughter. Despite unmasking Antonio’s hypocrisy Shylock loses because she is confronted by men, even fake men because Portia thinks nothing of disguising her gender in order to pull a fast one on Shylock who doesn’t have a chance.

The judgment scene is amazingly tight and dramatic. So is the whole production. In contrast to the Macbeth currently playing in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, this is an object lesson in how to cut and adapt an original text in order to create cohesion and focus.

There are other impressive aspects, too. Erran Baron Cohen’s music is atmospheric and complements each of the scenes where it is used. The backdrop of a street scene is a constant reminder of the urban landscape. The many projected media clips and film extracts from the 1930s keep the fascist-Jewish conflict constantly in view.

The play ends not in the way Shakespeare presented it. All the characters except Shylock turn into fascists. The play ends with the Cable Street conflict, the locals confronting the fascists with a chorus of ‘They Shall Not Pass’ – a brilliant political ending not at all inappropriate to the 2020s and the Home Secretary’s persecution of those of particular ethnicities, hypocritically denying her own.

This is powerful stuff which made me re-evaluate several aspects of Shakespeare’s text. It’s important stuff, too.

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