Reviews are coming in for the new adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice – The Merchant of Venice 1936, starring Tracy-Ann Oberman.
The play formerly opened last night at the Palace Theatre Watford, where it runs until 11 March 2023, before setting off on a UK tour that will include HOME Manchester (15 – 25 March), and then the RSC’s Swan Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon, Wycombe Swan Theatre, Malvern Theatre, Churchill Theatre Bromley, New Theatre Cardiff and York Theatre Royal.
Tracy-Ann Oberman (Noises Off, EastEnders, Doctor Who, Friday Night Dinner) stars as Shylock, with the drama transported to a 1930’s London on the brink of political unrest and with fascism sweeping across Europe.
Alongside Tracy-Ann Oberman in the cast are Raymond Coulthard as Antonio; Hannah Morrish as Portia; Adam Buchanan as Bassanio; Jessica Dennis as Nerissa; Priyank Morjaria as Lorenzo; Gráinne Dromgoole as Jessica; Xavier Starr as Gratiano; and Alex Zur as Yuval.
The Merchant of Venice 1936 is directed and adapted by Brigid Larmour from an idea by co-creator Tracy Ann-Oberman.
Joining Larmour in the creative team are Costume and Set Design by Liz Cooke. The Lighting Designer is Rory Beaton and Sound Design is by Sarah Weltman. The Composer is Erran Baron Cohen.
Tracy-Ann Oberman was recently in the West End starring in Noises Off at the Phoenix Theatre, which is still playing until 11 March 2023.
Reviews from theatre critics are listed below, including the Guardian, Times and Daily Mail.
More reviews to follow
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The Merchant of Venice 1936 reviews
"Shylock takes on Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts"
"A striking, slick adaptation of Shakespeare’s problematic play sees Tracy-Ann Oberman play a Jewish matriarch up against the fascists of 1930s London"
"At the centre stands Oberman’s Shylock, the Jewish moneylender who demands “a pound of flesh” from Antonio (Raymond Coulthard) to exact justice and is punished with a forced conversion to Christianity as part of the play’s rather contrived happy ending."
"Oberman plays the role with a righteous anger and great inner strength. Her demand for flesh seems less driven by simple vengeance and more an outraged response to Mosley’s campaign of antisemitic persecution – as well as a single mother’s fearful defence against the rising forces conspiring to render her powerless."
"... the ideological underpinning here is much more rigorous, informing story and character, and showing both afresh."
"Larmour’s adaptation is slickly paced, with the verse sounding almost modern."
"There are some weaker aspects: Shylock’s daughter, Jessica (Gráinne Dromgoole), who betrays her, is too much a cypher and the mother-daughter relationship seems undercharged, while the back-screen projections revealing facts behind Mosley’s British Union of Fascists are heavy-handed. But these are quibbles in an impactful production that shows how an ideologically problematic text can be staged while serving as its own critique."
"Shylock battles the blackshirts of the East End"
"The director Brigid Larmour’s adaptation, based on an idea by Tracy-Ann Oberman — who also gives us a female Shylock — tackles Shakespeare’s troubling portrayal of Jews in uncompromising terms."
"It’s an invigorating production, even if it’s guilty of throwing too many ideas in the mix."
"Oberman’s Shylock is a defiant matriarch, a survivor of the shtetl who appears more isolated than ever in the trial scenes because of an undercurrent of misogyny."
"Antonio drips menace. Hannah Morrish’s Portia is even icier, a handmaiden to the master race dressed in silk."
"At this performance, the audience played its part too. In Larmour’s prologue, a communal prayer scene, several voices from the stalls responded to the invocations. Later, when Shylock is ordered to convert to Christianity, there were groans of distress from the auditorium. This production may have its flaws, but it speaks to us."
"Now Shylock’s an East End matriarch facing down fascists"
"In a radical new production of The Merchant Of Venice in Watford, this is a fascinating and timely reinvention of the Bard’s highly contentious, stereotypical Jewish character, played by Tracy-Ann Oberman (recently in Noises Off)."
"The new setting is certainly thought-provoking... Although heavily cut to run at two hours — including a 20-minute interval — Larmour’s adaptation remains very much Shakespeare."
"The problem with Larmour’s otherwise thoughtful and unsettling production is that she has turned it into a didactic polemic, with the posh merchant Antonio wearing a black shirt and Nazi armband. He’s a very one-dimensional baddie, whereas Shakespeare’s full text offers a sharper and more complex presentation of Shylock’s social evisceration."
"Oberman, however, is a very distinctive Shylock, performing with enormous pride and dignity in the face of rancid racism. She particularly relishes Shylock’s contemptuous put‑downs — investing them with righteous, guttural scorn."
"But there is little sense of the widespread resistance to fascism that defeated Mosley. For that, Larmour would have been better off with a play cut loose from all the baggage that comes with old Bill."
"This East End Merchant of Venice is potent – but it could be peerless"
"Tracy-Ann Oberman makes history as the first British actress to play Shylock in this flawed but fascinating staging"
"This ambitious, insightful, potentially indispensable account of Shakespeare’s notoriously problematic play relocates the action to London and the heart of the East End during a shameful era of emboldened British anti-Semitism. And it’s a passion project like no other for its star."
"Her Mitteleuropean accent is strong, and striking. Her attitude – stern, not easily sympathetic – is equally arresting. Oberman dares you to dislike Shylock, even as it’s made clear she has good cause to despise those she’s asked to lend to."
"Given Oberman’s view, I’d love the work itself to be put even more squarely in the dock. And I also yearned for more of the period context to seep in... The show should feel confident about digging deeper, and taking its time. Oberman and co are on to something. This is potent. It could be peerless."
"A new vision for Shakespeare's problem play opens in Watford ahead of a tour "
"There's an extraordinary moment at the end of this neat reimagining of The Merchant of Venice when Tracy-Ann Oberman, playing Shylock, drops character and her heavy Hebrew accent to remind us, as the houselights come up, that as a society we are "better together". Such heavy-handed messaging could feel, well, rather trite. But at a time of ever-increasing polarity around so many issues, not least immigration, it feels both urgent and deeply moving."
"Oberman's performance is the anchor of her co-adaptor Brigid Larmour's impassioned production. It's a brave and deeply personal portrayal – she has based her pawn shop-owning Shylock on the story of her great-grandmother."
"... this bold and lucid interpretation."
"Shakespeare confronted and reassessed in The Merchant of Venice 1936"
"... it’s sometimes in the new plays and the most sweeping adaptations that we find the most electric responses... Some have argued that Shakespeare’s original should not be performed or taught at all. Actor Tracy-Ann Oberman does not agree: for her, it’s about confronting it and examining both the play and the history of antisemitism in Britain"
"The story unfolds on the eve of the Battle of Cable Street, when the East End working-class community forced back Mosley’s blackshirts. All this sharpens and heightens events in the play."
"Oberman gives a galvanising central performance, her dignity in the face of verbal insults and contempt giving way to despair and raw hatred when she loses her daughter to the people who torment her."