It’s a dark and rainy Halloween in Cardiff, but this Tuesday evening brings a different kind of horror as Tracy Ann Oberman brings Shakespeare’s Shylock forward in time to 1930s London: a tinderbox of antisemitism and fascism, as portrayed in The Merchant Of Venice 1936.
Its pre-World War II setting puts Shylock – played here by Oberman as a widowed matriarch – amid the rise of Oswald Mosley’s British Union Of Fascists, colloquially known as the Blackshirts. Moneylender Shylock demands “a pound of flesh” from Antonio, a Mosley type, while Portia is a rich heiress in the mould of a Mitford girl. Glass smashes can be heard offstage, an apparent reference to the infamous battle of Cable Street; here, one might consider why it is that British students invariably learn of Kristallnacht in school but are rarely taught about our domestic outbreaks of fascism.
The central performance of Oberman – who, last month, wrote that this touring production “has had to have security men around keeping an eye on things” – in what may be Shakespeare’s most contentious play is delivered with a strength that implicitly makes the case for Jewish roles being reserved for Jewish actors. Certainly, the feeling is that a non-Jewish actor not only shouldn’t but couldn’t convincingly play Shylock.
As it is, Oberman is a theatrical force to be reckoned with – you can imagine she’s drawing on real anger in her acting – to the point that you miss her when she’s not onstage; I’d happily watch her in a one woman play. Her reading of the famous “If you prick us, do we not bleed?” speech is starkly relevant today, and not just for Jewish people: it can be heard as an appeal to tolerance and humanity for any threatened minority. Substitute Jews with – for example – trans people in the lines, “Hath not a Jew eyes? … hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases…” and the sentiment holds water.
The Merchant Of Venice 1936’s remaining cast are strong, as well. Jessica Dennis, as Shylock’s maid Mary, is comical to start before pivoting to cruel mockery of her ex-employer; Xavier Starr, as a rather buffoonish Blackshirt, reminded me slightly of Sir Percy from Blackadder, but showed such characters can also be the most vicious.
In its time, The Merchant Of Venice was billed as a comedy, but this take both paints it in darker tones and leaves us in no doubt with whom our sympathies lay. As fascism threatens this 20th-century Shylock’s livelihood, she clings on to her principles, leading to her downfall. A new, stark interpretation of a problematic work from the canon.
The Merchant Of Venice 1936, New Theatre, Cardiff, Tue 31 Oct
On until Sat 4 Nov. Tickets: £25-£47. Info: here
words CHRIS WILLIAMS