Thought-provoking, powerful and full of forgotten truths; The Merchant of Venice 1936 gives a fresh interpretation of the Shakespeare classic onstage at York Theatre Royal this week.
Though I’m a long term Shakespeare enthusiast, The Merchant of Venice is not a production I would usually run to watch… well it wasn’t until yesterday evening. Brigid Larmour and Tracy-Ann Oberman have brought a groundbreaking adaptation which enabled the production to both be a fresh retelling of the classic and a horrifying step back in history.
The Merchant of Venice 1936 is at York Theatre Royal from Tuesday 14 to Saturday 18 November.
Despite the familiar dialect and character arcs, the transformation made the original text almost unrecognisable, as it transported us far from Venice to the 1936 East End – as antisemitism arose and World War II was looming.
For those unfamiliar with this text, the story follows the bankrupt Bassiano and his desire to marry his love Portia, but in order to do so he needs funds that his dear friend Antonio can not currently provide and therefore they must rely on Merchant Shylock to lend this money. And with a bond like no other: Antonio promises a pound of his flesh if he cannot repay the loan, and so the deal is made.
Amongst this story is a series of complex relationships, one of which is Shylock’s daughter and the ongoing social issues which translate even more harrowingly in this setting. As the tale progresses, the stakes are raised and the characters must face the consequences of their own actions.
At the forefront of this production is the phenomenal Tracy-Ann Oberman as the powerful Jewish moneylender Shylock. Oberman described this production, which started as a mere conversation between herself and Larmour, in an interview as ‘the project of her life’ – and from the moment she steps on to stage you can see exactly why.
Power binds her character together throughout the story, whether its use is for the better or worse and you could not help but be drawn in from her very first line, to the powerful climax at the end.
Whilst Oberman was at the forefront of the talent, this overflowed amongst the rest of the cast and every single member brought a uniqueness to their role. Hannah Morrish, playing the desirable Portia, was an excellent reminder of the light-hearted comedic themes within the text. She out-witted many suitors awaiting the much-loved Bassiano (Gavin Fowler) and was willing to move heaven and earth for him – and even have a go at a spot of gender reversal, a scene which was a highlight of the performance.
Raymond Coulthard’s Antonio brought us a strict and respected friend and leader on the surface, however beneath we witnessed a weakness that only made his performance even more impressive. The entire cast came together and brought a plethora of theatre magic and masterclass in multi-roling.
The set may have been simplistic overall, however I felt the use of projections was especially strong – a constant reminder of the social commentary underpinning this portrayal. As an audience there was no avoidance from the setting, we were involved from the moment the action began up until the final bow, as act two came to its masterful crescendo of an end.
It quite literally took my breath away and only proved how relevant this adaptation is, not only now but how relevant it has always been and will be – with ongoing conflicts and social distress I feel you could place this performance in any decade and it would stand the test of time and the resulting message still ringing true.
This production would be well-suited to any generation of adults, regardless of previous Shakespeare knowledge, the artistic choices create an accessibility that enables it to not only be understood but to leave every audience member captivated by its thought provoking context.
Whether an avid Shakespeare fan or someone looking for a night of first-rate talent, you do not want to miss The Merchant of Venice 1936 showing at York Theatre Royal until Saturday 18 November.
Tickets start from £15 and are available via the York Theatre Royal website.