Review: The Merchant of Venice

Jessica Harris watches the RSC’s latest interpretation of the Shakespeare classic.

Set in the 1930s, when the British Union of Fascists led by Oswald Mosley, was on the rise, this shortened adaptation of The Merchant of Venice gives a vivid portrayal of antisemitism, and also pays homage to the many who stood, and to those who continue to stand, against fascism of all kinds.

But the story of Shylock, and his treatment at the hands of antisemites is still central, and the repositioning of the play to a more recent time is handled skilfully by script adapters Brigid Larmour and Tracy-Ann Oberman. The result is compelling and memorable.

The character of Shylock, frequently seen as problematic, is wonderfully played by Tracy-Ann Oberman. Supported by the play’s staging, her performance brings out the complexity of the character. In the opening scene, Shylock is with her family, where cultural traditions are used to convey warmth and humanity. As the story develops, she is portrayed as strong and dignified, a business-woman but also a mother seeking to protect herself and her family from the daily racism they experience. Her demand that Antonio fulfills his bond, which requires him to repay her loan with a pound of his flesh, is clearly shown to be a consequence of the persecution she has endured: “Thou call’dst me a dog before thou hadst a cause; But since I am a dog, beware my fangs.”

The problematic character of Shylock’s daughter, Jessica (played by Gráinne Dromgoole), is also dealt with well. When told that, despite her conversion to Christianity, she is damned because of her parentage, the anguish she feels is well portrayed. Her love scene with Lorenzo builds on this, as she doubts her decision to convert, rather than displaying her love. Later, as she aspires to join his social group, her costuming in a short ritzy number whilst all around her are in elegant evening dress emphasises how she is an outsider who will never be accepted by them.

A strong supporting cast adds further value to the production, from the menacing fascist, Gratiano, played by Zavier Starr, to Portia’s overblown suitors, played by Priyank Morjaria and Raymond Coulthard. An atmosphere of threat and intimidation is built up, particularly in the performances of the male characters. As their sense of entitlement grows and the delivery of their lines becomes more vehement, so, one by one, they change from their gentleman’s garb into the uniforms of the Blackshirts, complete with red armbands. The giddy passion displayed by Portia, played by Hannah Morrish, amplifies this, playing up the charade that all is right in the world if you have wealth and privilege.

As the powers of the elite align against Shylock, the highly dramatic trial scene would seem to reinforce the notion that the powerful always win out. But, in a final twist, Shylock rejects Antonio’s demand that she convert to Christianity. Instead, she joins the protestors at the 1936 battle of Cable Street in London’s East End in which the British Union of Fascists was halted by people of Jewish, Anglican and Catholic faiths, amongst others. The staging of this final scene is a bit of a jolt to what has gone before and would benefit from a smoother transition. But the impact is there, and the message of solidarity against bigotry rings out clearly.

The Merchant of Venice was directed by Brigid Larmour. Costumes and set were designed by Liz Cooke. The video designer was Greta Zabulyte. It is on at Stratford until 10th February 2024. For further information visit here.

Pics – Marc Brenner (c) RSC