The Merchant of Venice (1936)
William Shakespeare, adap Brigid Larmour
Watford Palace Theatre in association with Home Manchester, supported by Trafalgar Theatre Productions, Eilene Davidson Productions and the RSC
March 15-25, 2023; 2hrs
Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice is given a sharp and modern reworking in this production, an adaptation by Brigid Lamour, in coordination with Tracy-Ann Oberman, who also plays Shylock.
The adaptation is faithful to the core of the play, while the resetting focuses minds on modern day parallels, current culpability and the damage we can do to one another by unintended, as well as deliberate, hate-filled cruelty.
The setting is 1930s Britain, where Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists is galvanising prejudice, gaining influence, terrifying Jewish communities and ultimately being defeated, as London's East Enders gather to prevent a march through the predominantly Jewish Cable Street.
We open not with Venetian trading affluence but a religious family and community celebration among signs of outside aggression. It is a little while before we realise that the successful merchant Antonio and his younger followers don’t even try to conceal their anti-semitism as they engage in their playful discourse and affection.
Bassanio seeks his fortune by marrying a wealthy heiress, Portia, and needs temporary finance from Antonio to pursue his suit. Antonio’s lack of liquidity pushes them towards borrowing money from Shylock, whose Jewish religion allows him to lend money for interest – something forbidden to Christians at the time.
Shylock refrains from adding interest to the contract, instead demanding a pound of flesh should re-payment fail.
Of course it does fail, while Bassanio is wooing Portia, and the courts seem unable to resolve the situation. Cue Portia, disguised as a man, to bring a clever head to the proceedings. Despite this, the cruelty and prejudice of the elite ensures that Shylock is forever broken.
The production has pace. The text cuts work for a modern audience while keeping the essentials intact. These include some of the finest anti-prejudice, pre-20th century speeches written, from Shylock’s “Do I not bleed?“ to Portia’s famous Quality of Mercy speech.
Modern reworkings of Shakespeare usually come with losses as well as gains. Not so this production which thumps home the contemporary relevance and asks questions of a modern-day audience without losing the power of the original. It is helped by Liz Cook’s set design, which works equally well in indoor and outdoor settings for the elite as well as the downtrodden. Sarah Wellman‘s sound design ensures Aaron Baron Cohen‘s music enhances but never disguises the dialogue.
Hannah Morrish’s Portia is haughty, proud and successful, displaying some mercy within class confines. Raymond Coulthard’s Antonio is an arrogant and indulging fascist. Tracy-Ann Oberman’s Shylock, thought to be the first female betrayal of this powerful character, is utterly commanding and convincing.
We hear a great deal about bringing new audiences to this artform; this production has the power to do so without alienating the long-term, older audiences who are already out there, wanting to get back to the power of theatre.
::After its HOME run the production will tour again in the autumn.
More info and tickets here