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The Merchant of Venice 1936 - RSC Review

Reviewed by Mark Johnson
Disclaimer: ticket was gifted in return for an honest review.

Shakespeare’s Venice play becomes the East End of London in a gripping new adaption of The Merchant of Venice.

Tracy-Ann Oberman (centre) and the company. Photo by Marc Brenner.

Adapted by Tracy-Ann Oberman, who also plays Shylock and Brigid Larmour, who also directs, this new streamlined and punchy version of the text sets the action in 1936 with the rise of fascism. Figures like Oswald Mosley have their speeches projected onto the backdrop in stark reminders of the reality Jews faced in pre-war Britain. 

Whilst the text has been heavily cut or reworked it follows the same story as Antonio, a merchant, takes out a loan from Shylock, with the bond that of a pound of his flesh if the loan cannot be repaid. Antonio helps his friend Bassiano woo Portia, and once Shylock demands the pound of flesh over doubling the bond, Portia disguises herself and helps save the life of Antonio.

Oberman is a complete marvel as Shylock, her performance is enchanting as this lifelong ambition comes to fruition. The production itself came from Oberman’s idea and was inspired by her Great Grandmother Annie and the working-class Jewish women of the East End. The well-thought-out and researched production is only illuminated further by Oberman’s performance. 

Oberman is supported by a strong company, some who multi-role parts. Raymond Coulthard as Antonio/Arragon, Gráinne Dromgoole as Jessica, Gavin Fowler as Bassiano, Jessica Dennis as Mary/Nerissa and a magnificent Hannah Morrish as Portia all give memorable performances. 

Visually the production is striking in its use of video and projection which hit a stark reminder of the reality the Jews were facing in 1936 which culminated in The Battle of Cable Street. Liz Cooke’s design uses a house backdrop which often is defaced with anti-Semitic graffiti, a white curtain covers the backdrop as scenes move locations.

Using Shakespeare’s text and language to frame the story in something that feels ever relevant and a reminder we can’t let those ways return. Running at 2 hours (including an interval) it’s also very fast paced with a rousing finale is an unforgettable way to end the production in this urgent re-telling.

The Merchant of Venice 1936 plays at the Swan Theatre until Saturday 7th October 2023, the production then tours with stops in Wycombe, Malvern, Bromley, Cardiff, Wilton’s Music Hall in London, York and Manchester before returning to the Swan from Wednesday 24th January until Saturday 10th February 2024. for tickets in Stratford-Upon-Avon and for dates and booking for the tour.

Tracy-Ann Oberman (Shylock). Photo by Marc Brenner

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