The Merchant of Venice 1936 @ Watford Palace Theatre

The choice to perform The Merchant of Venice in a current political climate rife with antisemitism specifically and xenophobia more broadly requires care, to say the least. Produced at a time when moral leadership on immigration was being provided primarily by a football pundit, Brigid Larmour’s production (created in collaboration with actor Tracy-Ann Oberman, who had the idea for this particular take) took on itself the burden of reflecting on British fascism and antisemitism as an explicit corrective to false narratives about a tolerant Britain. The choice to retitle the play The Merchant of Venice 1936 – despite being a rather less radical adaptation than many other productions which don’t change their titles – made clear the priorities of the creative team, Merchant itself serving as a vehicle for something that had ambitions towards being a play about and for a specific London community. The ideas were laudable; however, the continued deprioritization of dramaturgs in British productions of classical drama – as well as an apparent reluctance to make the decisive break from Shakespeare that the concept so desperately needed – underpinned the production’s failure in getting these noble ideas to cohere.

The production had put in substantial work on its setting in 1936 East End London and the surrounding contexts, as evidenced in the well-designed digital platform supporting the production, the outreach efforts with local Jewish communities and Holocaust remembrance organizations, and the employment of local storytellers to weave together narratives of British Jewish history. In casting, too, the production showed a conscious approach to signification: Priyank Morjaria, for example, played Lorenzo as a ‘Bullingdon boy, highly assimilated Indian aristocrat’, while Gobbo was reimagined as Mary Gobbo, ‘East End Irish Catholic working class’ (Jessica Dennis). The diligent work put in here to thinking about how each of these characters might find a place in this time and place was not just about finding equivalents, but also about clarifying the power relationships and structures: the Sallys, for instance, were here imagined as a working-class Police Constable (Xavier Starr) and a homeless veteran (Alex Zur), both sympathetic to the British Union of Fascists, but with a clout on the streets that made them specifically intimidating to Shylock when confronting her in the streets. The reimagining of Bassanio (Adam Buchanan), Gratiano (Starr) and Lorenzo as Bullingdon boys in full dining wear with tails, in juxtaposition with the working-class fascist supporters, was a stark reminder of the broad support for Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts – represented here by Raymond Coulthard’s black-shirted Antonio – at all levels of society.

This was the melting pot that provided the context for The Battle of Cable Street, introduced through Greta Zabulyte’s video projections of newsreels, maps, captions, and archival footage, which played against the upstage wall. In 1936, the people of the East End bound together to resist a march by Mosley’s fascists, just as they were doubling down on the nakedness of their prejudice. For this production, Cable Street reflected a message that needs to be heard ever louder right now in the UK – that fascism is on the rise, and that only by taking direct action to stand up to it will we be saved. As such, this was truly a play about The Battle of Cable Street, with Merchant deployed as preceding context for prejudicial systems and unchallenged abuse of Jewish people by exactly the kinds of people we might recognise in contemporary society. The dramaturgical problem was Merchant itself, which needed to be much, much more radically cut in order to serve the production’s purpose. By insisting on keeping almost every plot point, though, while simultaneously gutting those plots to make them perfunctory, the production ended up creating the worst of all worlds – an almost dutiful Wikipedia-style trot through of the plot, with a few powerful scenes then awkwardly attached to the climax, to which I will return later.

The production began in a private club, with some audience members sharing cabaret seating around the edges of the stage (a staging choice that finally became clear in the production’s closing seconds). Coulthard’s confident, but wistful, Antonio sat at a table, sipping a drink, and waiting for Bassanio to come to him. The clear distinction between the older, black-wearing Antonio and the younger posh boys helped give a sense of the reverence that they showed for him; Antonio instructed Bassanio to kiss him on the cheek, then turned his face at the last second to present his lips, and when Bassanio hesitated and kissed his forehead instead, Antonio smiled indulgently. He wielded power: Shylock ordered the police constable to arrest Antonio after he defaulted on his debts, but after she left, Antonio indicated to the constable to remove his handcuffs. Posters of Mosley adorned the walls of the terraced housing that made up part of the production’s scenery (beautifully realised by Liz Cooke), and the atmosphere of this world largely depended on Antonio’s happiness, which made it all the more imperative that he be saved when his life was in danger.

This emphasis on propping up Antonio, reminiscent in some ways of the supporting narrative of Cabaret, did also mean that most of the cast were playing stock figures in a very clear-cut depiction of a fascist context, an effect heightened by a cut that privileged the fundamentals of plot mechanisms but winnowed out character work. Starr probably had the most fun as Gratiano, including turning up with an England flag to scream drunkenly outside Shylock’s house during the ‘riots’ (a nice allusion here to the infamously horrific behaviour of Boris Johnson and his Bullingdon cronies), and at other times doubling down on a cartoonishly Hugh-Laurie-in-Blackadder posh idiot identity. Buchanan’s Bassanio was something of a blank, a polite posh boy dedicated to serving either Antonio or Portia (Hannah Morrish), and Lorenzo similarly existed primarily to enable Jessica’s (Gráinne Dromgoole) flight from her mother. By reducing the ‘Christian’ characters to their function in setting up the Antonio v Shylock conflict, and treating them as bland representations of generalisable figures in this society, the production set up a tension between setting and plot, with the setting beautifully realised but the plot an interminable distraction from the story it really wanted to tell.

This was most keenly the case in the Belmont scenes. Morrish played Portia as, according to the programme, ‘Aristocratic heiress, perfect privileged Aryan blonde, a better educated Diana Mitford’, and she did so perfectly, with Dennis’s Nerissa as a poor relation. Portia, as so often in productions, openly sneered at the ‘complexion’ of her first suitor (here, a Maharajah, played by Morjaria, rather than the Prince of Morocco), and groaned at the flamboyance of Arragon (Coulthard), played here as a Spanish fascist in one of the few openly comic scenes. More interestingly, when Lorenzo brought Jessica to Belmont, both Portia and Nerissa looked coldly at her, then ignored her, their privilege meaning they didn’t even need to disguise their contempt. All of this worked beautifully in service of the set-up of the fascist context within which Shylock’s persecution was happening. However, it also meant that the audience was required to sit through an interminable romantic subplot in which one privileged fascist wooed another. Again, Morrish played the role perfectly. This Portia was icy, only occasionally letting down her guard as she showed her enthusiasm for Bassanio. Nerissa sang the song while Bassanio picked his casket, leaning obviously heavily on the ‘ed’ sounds of each rhyme to point him towards the lead casket, with Portia nodding along hopefully. But with the production signalling so strongly to its audience to, at the very least, not care about any of these characters, if not actively detest them, it was impossible to find any of this charming or amusing; yet the production was also unwilling to make the larger textual changes necessary to do more than the basics in using the scenes to show the privilege that underpinned their fascism.

Inevitably, and importantly, it was in the Jewish storyline that the production showed its interest. The production began with a Jewish meal, a community gathered together to break bread, pray in Hebrew, and be together; this community then broke apart as one of the men, Coulthard, re-dressed himself as Antonio. But the performance of Hebrew on the stage, reflected in Oberman’s strong Hebrew accent, was key to creating a rich character in contrast to the broad stereotypes of the Christians. Shylock was a widowed shopkeeper and matriarch, imagined specifically as an ‘immigrant refugee from 1905 pogroms in Odesa’, drawing on Oberman’s background and on Rebecca Abrams’s research into female Jewish moneylenders. Confronted by misogyny as well as antisemitism, Shylock remained dignified, lightly amused, and firm in her interactions with the Christians. She enjoyed spitting on her hand before offering to shake it with Antonio, her riposte to his threatening advance and glower when telling her he would happily spit on her again. But Oberman also showed a lot of vulnerability, especially when she heard about the Bullingdon rioting and fearfully told Jessica to stay in their house.

Shylock’s world was a quiet, domestic one, in which Jessica and Mary both did work as clerks, despite Mary’s disdain for her Jewish mistress (Gobbo’s lines were cut down, though Mary took on some of the Salerio/Solanio lines in confronting Shylock, which also made nice sense of the ‘You knew, none so well as you, of my daughter’s flight’ as a specific individual betrayal). Shylock was hard, a survivor of pogroms and a successful businesswoman in a world where she was hated, and in Oberman’s pursed lips and clipped voice, it was easy to see the defensive mechanisms which allowed her to survive, and which lent particular pathos to her later cry of ‘You take my life / When you do take the means whereby I live’. And when she lost her daughter and her money to the Christians in what she perceived to be an act of injustice, she fixated on the idea that the law could give her the justice she lacked. She did not, however, actually expect to have to go through with this – when a disguised Portia handed her the knife in court, Shylock stood as if in shock, unclear on how it had come to this.

With the production designed around Antonio and Shylock, it was unsurprising that Shylock’s setpieces were the production’s strongest moments. In performing ‘Hath not a Jew eyes?’ to a police constable and to Mary Gobbo, the words took on both local pathos as Shylock appeared to someone who had shared her home with her, and institutional weight as she demanded that the constable show her the same respect under the law as anyone else. And in the trial, which was downbeat (Antonio and Shylock sitting on wooden-backed chairs either side of Zur’s Duke), the emphasis was on emotion and appeal. Shylock looked vulnerable, a little middle-aged lady in a court full of dressed-up men. The production wisely steered away from histrionics, save a couple of Gratiano’s outbursts to productively disrupt the tone; instead, the Duke presided over a slow working out of the legal question, the uncuffing of Antonio, and the lining up of the tall men as a formidable force of unmovable institutional privilege, in front of which Shylock crumbled and stumbled out of the court, though remaining visible downstage throughout all that followed.

All of this worked well; none of it made any sense of what Portia and Nerissa were doing in the trial, though, and this marked the production’s biggest structural difficulties. The only really thematically cohesive point to be drawn from the presence of the Mitford-esque Portia here was a reminder of the extent to which the upper classes would go to pervert legal systems in protection of their own. However, given that even Shylock seemed surprised when the trial went her way, and given that Portia and Nerissa had understandably barely been allowed to develop characters, there was nothing here to latch onto. The production itself seemed to realise this. Following the conclusion of the trial, the production bafflingly kept the entire ring business, but cut it down so that the stage time between the rings being requested and the revelation back in Belmont of Portia and Nerissa’s disguise took about five minutes; Gratiano’s befuddled reaction was the only appropriate thing about this plot that should have been entirely dispensed with. The waste of time here also undercut the return to Jessica, who was on the outs with Lorenzo and clearly felt unwelcome in Belmont, but whose far more interesting story wasn’t given space to develop. Here, the seeming reluctance to cut out a strand of the plot, or to commit to rewriting Portia entirely to fit this production’s purpose, left the play casting about wildly for a narrative in its final act.

Its final choice was to break with narrative entirely. Suddenly, at the end of the Belmont scene, the noise of fascist marches began, and the production changed its mode entirely. The cast threw off their costumes and became, once more, the local East End Jewish community. They pulled the audience members at the cabaret seating into the middle of the stage, upended the tables and chairs to create a barricade, and began chanting anti-fascist slogans and standing ready to fight. Then, stepping forward, Oberman – now using her own voice – made a personal call for us all to stand together. It was undeniably powerful, and an important message to close on. But the jarring shift from the pointless act five of Merchant to this sudden and far too brief recreation of a moment from 1936 was disastrously incoherent. Indeed, even Coulthard prominently took off his Blackshirt outfit and became another Eastender, which wasted the opportunity to make a clear narrative connection between the outcome of Shylock’s trial and the Cable Street battle – if there was one moment where the danger of the stock fascist figures of this production needed to be felt, it was here, rather than having them reincorporated back into the community.

This production cared deeply about the story it wanted to tell, and all of the performances were designed to serve that setting and that story, with a fully fleshed out Shylock and generous performances from a cast willing to call out the white Christian supremacy inherent in the majority of the characters. But the lack of a dramaturg in the creative team felt especially telling of a production which hadn’t worked out how to weave together its research materials and its community stories with a play that was structurally working against its setting, and which thus never realised the promise of its potential.

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