The Merchant of Venice 1936 – Criterion Theatre, London

Reviewer: Stephen Bates

Writer: William Shakespeare

Director: Brigid Larmour

Increasingly in recent years, The Merchant of Venice has come to be regarded as one of William Shakespeare’s problem plays, due to the perceived antisemitism in its treatment of the vengeful Jewish moneylender, Shylock. Perhaps cutting the most offensive lines could sweep some of the difficulties under the carpet, but, courageously, director Brigid Larmour’s revival takes exactly the opposite approach by tackling the problem head-on.

The production lands in the West End for a limited run almost a year after it began touring. Therefore, it was conceived well before the sequence of events triggered on 7 October 2023 added new urgency to its anti-antisemitic sentiments. This version of the play is set in the East End of London in 1936, when mobs of black-shirted demonstrators, led by former Labour Member of Parliament Oswald Mosley, were swarming the streets in ugly protests against the Jewish community, aligning themselves with activities of Adolf Hitler’s Nazis in Germany. Real-life newsreel footage from the time and newspaper cuttings are projected onto the set, accompanied by British nationalist images and patriotic songs.

The change of setting does not explain the change in Shylock’s gender, but making the character a woman takes nothing away from the power of the messaging. In fact, Tracy-Ann Oberman’s compelling performance in the role provides more than adequate justification. Abandoned by the elopement of her daughter Jessica (Gráinne Dromgoole) with the gentile Lorenzo (Priyank Morjaria), she becomes an isolated figure and it is made abundantly clear why the racist abuse which she receives, particularly at the hands of the arrogant merchant Antonio (Raymond Coulthard), is unbearable and why she is driven to claim her pound of his flesh.

The lack of colour in Liz Cooke’s set and costume designs establishes a sombre tone which runs throughout. This makes the rather silly romcomthat takes up a large part of the play’s first half seem even more ill-fitting than usual. Portia, played as a very modern professional woman by Hannah Morrish, has inherited great wealth from her late father and now has to choose between suitors by getting them to open caskets. There is much more potential for comedy here than Armour chooses to squeeze out, but perhaps it is wise to understate these scenes rather than risk undermining the gravity of the production’s overriding themes.

Portia’s chosen suitor is Bassanio (Gavin Fowler), Antonio’s close friend, and thus she is drawn into the merchant’s conflict with Shylock. The stage is now set for a searing, all-female courtroom battle of breathtaking intensity. Very lucidly, the question is asked as to who is in the right – the persecuted and abused Shylock, fighting for her honour, her heritage and her faith or Antonio, defending his flesh and his life.

in this adaptation by Armour and Oberman, the play runs for a manageable 130 minutes and, even if the brief sermonising which rounds it off feels unnecessary, it underlines the deep passion of all involved in the project. When the quality of mercy prevails here, we are left hoping that the same will soon happen universally.

Runs until 23 March 2024

The Reviews Hub Score

A searing revival

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The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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