After being on hold for three years due to the pandemic, Watford Palace Theatre proudly presents a revolutionary version of The Merchant Of Venice 1936. Placing Tracy-Ann Oberman as Shylock, who is normally played by a male figure, this production attempts to challenge the preconceived notions about Jewish moneylenders and ideology around social and political power. 

Credit: Marc Brenner

The show’s setting is London in 1936 – fascism is sweeping across Europe, and Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists is threatening to march through the Jewish East End. The use of minimal set pieces takes us to different interiors and exteriors whilst also offering a handful of audience members the unique view of cabaret-style on-stage seating. This is comprised of three seats per table, which is questionable in design, feeling as though there is a missed opportunity on many moments of participation. 

Two stories run in conjunction throughout. One consists of a promise to sacrifice a pound of flesh to the moneylender – Shylock’s, should the bond made be unpaid by Antonio. I give credit to Tracy and Raymond’s connection of unequivocal showmanship in their scene together at this point. 

Credit: Marc Brenner

Parallel to the events at hand, we come to the intersection of being introduced to the young, wealthy woman of culture in seek of a suitable marriage, Portia (played by the dynamic Hannah Morrish). Her heart cannot be determined by her choice but by those whose lovers do in seek of her hand. In playing a game of one choice and three boxes, each scene really does thrill you to think the answer of what is inside each box and seek her as she asks of her suitors. 

Everyone is involved together by this point, with superb acting by Jessica Dennis as the maiden Nerrisa who jumps jobs and loyalties to friends and foes for the right price. Gráinne Dromgoole is the daughter of Shylock and her passionate love to Priyanks Morjaria’s Lorenzo refutes her mother’s name and steals the family’s fortune. All while the world reverts to violent poverty towards Jewish communities, which is depicted in screenshots off the backdrop walls in Larmours/Oberman’s political setting. 

Credit: Marc Brenner

Following swiftly into the second of act, Morrish’s Portia tests the youthful suitor of Buchanan’s Bassano as the third tester to win her heart, doing so swiftly and in the nick of time as the scenes merge into the finale of the court scene. All the characters are brought together to settle what debts to bonds are owed between the now fully-uniformed neo-fascist Antonio and cohorts. Against the force of one, Oberman’s Shylock demands for justice and equality (and flesh especially). All is overturned by the slick and corrupt lawyering of the disguised Portia (Morrish really commands the stage wonderfully for the whole scene), leaving all stunned and gutted by the loss of one who is innocent.

Taking my attention was Coulthard’s deliverance of Antonio in presence and language, especially within the court room scene which was well executed and  packed the desired political punch with a bellowing silence at Antonio’s negotiation, which was one of the stronger parts of the play. 

The use of projection by Greta Zabulyteused briefly is highly effective in showing historic events, as well as the use of costume design by Liz Cooke to set the period and statues of this piece and character, notably Portia’s white, long, silk dress which Hannah Morrish radiated in. 

Credit: Marc Brenner

The overall story, however, feels at times confusing, and without former knowledge of the show goes amiss in what it’s about. Added moments such as the final scene with a speech (not of Shakespeare) as a rally to “not let them pass” and to join all of us together in a political plea for justice was quite moving. Although, breaking the fourth wall seemingly comes out of nowhere, which adds further bewilderment to the reasoning. The constant set changes divert the pace which allows for a lack of momentum scene to scene. There is a lack of presence from central characters, and there are feelings that aren’t all felt in a piece that is highly emotive. This is a version with maybe too many ideas, which loses understanding of intention. However, it is important in way of adaptation, reimagining current political events. The Merchant of Venice 1936 is currently playing at Watford Palace Theatre until the 11th of March, then touring.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

{🎟 AD – PR invite – Tickets were gifted in exchange for an honest review}

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