Live Review: The Merchant of Venice 1936 at York Theatre Royal

World events couldn’t have been more appropriate as war erupts in the Middle East between Israel and Hamas. Sunday saw marches and counter demonstrations played out in protest against Israel’s bombing of civilians and Hamas declared that its intentions were to annihilate The Zionist entity. What a dramatic backdrop for a version of The Merchant of Venice!

By Angie Millard

Photos by Marc Brenner

The evolution of this production is interesting. Tracy-Ann Oberman who plays Shylock met the Director, Brigid Larmour, at the 2018 Tonic Theatre Awards which celebrates the achievements of women in British Theatre. Oberman told Lamour of her idea to play a female Shylock in 1930s London. They discussed Oswold Mosley and the British Union of Fascists who were active in the pre-war years and were threatening a paramilitary march through the Jewish part of the East End. Then came lockdown and finally the production emerged with Oberman playing Shylock as a Jewish matriarch: a single mother who earns her living running a pawnbroking business in Cable Street where Mosley planned to march. Antonio, the antisemitic merchant of the title, comes to her for a loan and the plot unfolds.

Critics say that this version of Shakespeare’s play makes theatre history and is ‘striking and impactful’. It is an extremely difficult play to produce in 2023 as it is filled with the antisemitism of the period. 

At a Q&A after Wednesday’s show, the cast spoke of the main characters as Fascists and, by playing them as such, shed new light on the main theme. Hannah Morrish as Portia emphasised the underlying duplicity of her address to the court, describing her famous speech ‘the quality of mercy is not strain’d’ as hypocritical and in rehearsal they explored the subtext. It lays a trap for Shylock as Portia knows that her final trick will thwart Shylock’s revenge. She plays a spoiled upper class rich girl to perfection and the final scene when she reveals herself as the lawyer who has made Bassanio surrender the love token she gave him, makes one feel that it serves her right and ends the play on a note of dissension.

Nothing can change Shakespeare’s text and the play is openly antisemitic, probably the most vicious sentence the court delivers is to make Shylock become a Christian.

The Director however, added a final scene. The stage becomes Cable Street where the whole community came together to block the fascists and prevent their march. Apparently, in earlier performances, the audience had been invited up on the stage to make their protest too and I’m sorry that has been lost.

Oberman uses her Jewish background of relatives who lived in the Eastend of London, of strong emigrant women who became survivors. The 1930s setting and costume, designed by Liz Cooke, supported the reading. When the crowd of friends begin to exclude Lorenzo because he has married Shylock’s daughter, we see her wearing a showy, short, gold sequined dress while the other ladies are dressed in elegant full-length gowns and the sneering begins. My only reservation was that Grainne Drumgoole’s Jessica was rather hampered by her school girl costume prior to her marriage. We knew she was young and didn’t need this obvious signal.

The production is perfectly cast. Raymond Coulthard plays a dour, prejudiced Antonio and brilliantly doubles as a wonderfully comic Prince of Arragon. Xavier Starr is an idiotic Gratiano and acts as a foil to Gavin Fowler’s calculating Bassanio while Jessica Dennis gives substance to the role of Nerissa, making her more than a servant and also doubles as an Irish Gobo, thus adding another racial aspect to the Eastend mix.

It is a strong and committed production with excellent use of video footage. Maybe a segue into the united front of The Battle of Cable Street could have added to the coherence of the whole message but it certainly is a memorable experience.

The Merchant of Venice 1936 is being performed at York Theatre Royal until 18 November 2023.


Costume and Set Designer: Liz Cooke

Lighting Designer: Rory Beaton

Sound Designer: Sarah Weltman

Composer: Erran Baron Cohen

Video designer: Greta Zabulyte