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The Merchant of Venice 1936: powerful & sadly relevant

The Merchant of Venice 1936 at New Theatre, Cardiff

Review by Andy Weltch

A powerful new version of a Shakespeare classic has arrived in Cardiff, and we were at last night’s (Tuesday 31 October) opening.

The Merchant of Venice 1936 switches the story to London’s East End during the Great Depression, as fascism sweeps across Europe and anti-semitism takes a hold in Britain’s capital too.

It feels disturbingly and depressingly relevant today, as antisemitic attacks in London reach new heights in October 2023.

Tracy-Ann Oberman is mesmerising as Shylock – in this ingenius version, a devoted single mother and hard-working businesswoman in the Jewish community of Cable Street.

When the charismatic and popular antisemitic businessman Antonio is forced to ask her for a loan, the pair strike a high-stakes deal. Will Shylock take her revenge on the man who spits on her and treats her like a dog? And which of them will lose most in the end?

This is a powerful and thought-provoking production, which came from an idea by Tracy-Ann Oberman herself – basing Shylock on old-time East End matriarchs like her own great grandmother.

These were strong women who had escaped the violent antisemitism of Eastern Europe to start afresh in what they thought was the relative safety of London.

Against this backdrop, the story culminates in the ‘Battle of Cable Street’, when Jewish and other East Enders defied Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists.

Tracy-Ann Oberman is ably supported by Raymond Coulthard (as Antonio), Gavin Fowler (as Bassiano), Hannah Morrish (as Portia), Grainne Dromgoole (as Jessica), Priyank Morjaria (as Lorenzo), Jessica Dennis, Xavier Starr, Alex Zur, and Nancy Farino.

Renowned director Brigid Larmour, who adapted the Shakespeare text from Tracy-Ann Oberman’s idea, drives the action along at a pace which keeps the audience riveted.

And costumes and set designer Liz Cooke captures a starkly fractured 1930s London which is home to a working class struggling to make ends meet and an aristocracy who can afford to play frivolous courtshop games and write off any debt if they choose to.

The final scene at the Battle of Cable Street did seem a little disjointed from the rest of the play. But the countdown to this confrontation is flagged throughout in projected headlines and newsreel footage showing the steady rise of the fascist threat. It is certainly a very forceful way to drive home the ‘stand with us’ message to fight antisemitism.

This is a stunning adaptation, which I would urge you to see – not just as an exciting new version of a sometimes ‘problematic’ play, or as a brilliantly performed piece of theatre, but also for the light it shines on the scourge of antisemitism. Sadly, it’s as relevant today as it was in 1936 when it’s set and the 1590s when it was written.

The Merchant of Venice 1936 plays at The New Theatre until Saturday 4 November. Tonight’s (Wednesday) performance is due to be followed by a Q&A with Tracy-Ann Oberman and members of the cast. Saturday afternoon’s performance is captioned. Tickets are available from the box office on 0343 310 0041 or online here.

Review by Andy Weltch

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