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The Merchant of Venice (Watford Palace Theatre) and touring

(seen at the afternoon performance on 4th March 2023).

In 2018 Tracy-Ann Oberman discussed playing Shylock - with a view to exploring a play which is either about antisemitism or is simply antisemitic. Setting it in Cable Street, East London during the Mosley fascist marches of 1936 allowed Shylock to become a Jewish matriarch at the centre of a storm.

Brigid Larmour adapts and directs a text with a playing time of around an hour and forty minutes, at least an hour shorter than might be expected. Plucking scenes absolutely bald, then x-raying the remaining lines and staining them reveals the cancerous cells infesting almost every word of the piece.

Greta Zabulyte provides historic film clips and an effective synagogue signifier as back projections for Liz Cooke’s set of an East End tenement block frontage. Rory Beaton’s lighting creates the slightly grubby light of the times, Sarah Weltman adds unnervingly enveloping riot effects from all sides of the theatre, Erran Baron Cohen augments these with chilling chants and other musical flourishes.

An acting company of just nine double-up (occasionally disconcertingly) and move at particularly smart pace to conduct Oberman and Larmour's testing scrutiny.

Raymond Coulthard as a slightly fey Antonio deceives and conceals with impressive ease as his fortunes fluctuate, revealing a man whose word is truly not the bond most productions suggest.

Oberman takes her revenge dryly, delivering Shakepeare’s text unsullied by interpretation. Her point is clear, her accent (one with which the monkey is as familiar with as its own) alas slightly questionable slipping between “mittle-European”, Italian and occasionally back to London.

As Portia, Hanna Horrish is a desirable heiress, the riddle for her hand a distraction. Later, in court, it is clear how she wishes to deliver the greatest advocacy speech of all time. It is almost there, yet not quite – no doubt it will be by the end of the run, particularly with a little polish when the play reaches the Royal Shakespeare Company’s home.

Assistant Nerissa (Jessica Dennis) is well-sketched in the scenes available to her. As Mary Gobbo – created for this production as a maid, from the original character – there is strong work in a small yet significant role.

Likewise Grainne Dromgoole as Shylock’s escaping daughter Jessica does well moving from schoolgirl to wife. Equally Priyank Morjaria as husband Lorenzo shines – with brighter result than the box he chooses in a second role as Maharajah.

A note too for Xavier Starr, rather fine as a fascist sympathising Police Constable. He serves the play’s construct well as the connecting point filling in gaps between text abridgements. Small point is that the helmet strap goes under the lip, not the chin, though, of course.

Meandering through much of the first half, there is reason to absorb as far as possible the small signs before we reach the crucial point about whether this play is indeed “about” or simply “is.”

It is only on reaching the famous courtroom scene in which the balance of power shifts on the single word “flesh” that we may form some idea. Drawing conclusions is very much open to personal interpretation, but the parallels of experience with minorities facing courts today is obvious and intriguing to notice.

What we do know is how far we have come. As the play ends and the cast prepare to defend their homes against the marchers, they entreat help to stand up for the cause. That many in the audience took it literally (the monkey included) is heartening to say the least.

There is a distinct possibility that had the play in fact started with the trial, Berman and Larmour might have created something quite fascinating and original of their own. Perhaps they may do so as a result of this project.

Certainly not bloodless in its slicing, the dissection itself is rather successful in laying out the entrails, even if unable to reach a categorical conclusion. Given that it is a question asked for hundreds of years that is to be expected. Still, the evidence gathered is useful, arguments strained with care to advance a little understanding of play and context in an original manner.

3 stars.


Photo credit: Marc Brenner. Used by kind permission of Watford Palace Theatre.

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