Tracy-Ann Oberman’s Merchant of Venice 1936 feels deeply relevant in 2024

Prescient: Tracy-Ann Oberman stars in The Merchant of Venice 1936
Prescient: Tracy-Ann Oberman stars in The Merchant of Venice 1936

Tracy-Ann Oberman’s inspired account of The Merchant of Venice – situating the action, as per its amended title, in 1936, and within the context of British anti-Semitism and fascism in the East End – has gone from Watford to the West End.

Glowing reviews and public demand have put the wind in the sails of Oberman’s passion-project. And she’s cementing her place in the annals, given she’s the first British actress to play Shylock, the Jewish money-lender who, adhering to a bond agreed in “merry sport”, vengefully demands a “pound of flesh” from the Christian debtor, Antonio, and rues the day.

It has to be said that good news for Oberman and co correlates to grim tidings. Clearly, the rise in anti-Semitic incidents in the UK last year has reinforced the show’s relevance – and since the October 7th massacre, the evening’s pertinence has only grown.

On tour, additional security was brought in after threats were received, and that applies unobtrusively at the Criterion; I’m told there’s specialist surveillance outside the venue and within it, with personal protection for the star too. There’s no sense of a production under siege, though. Still, when you hear the sound of windows being smashed on occasion, your thoughts flit not only between the Mosleyite mob and their German Nazi counterparts but to today’s anxiety.

The supreme achievement of the production therefore is to banish any complacency about the prejudice that assails Shylock as happening in some far-off Venice. Using the build-up to the Battle of Cable Street as the backdrop (with chilling newsreel footage projected across the gloomy street scenery), we see anti-Jewish graffiti and an act of yobbish urination outside Shylock’s house. In climactically re-iterating “They shall not pass” – the rallying cry of the day (shouted, back then, by Oberman’s great-grandmother) the question is left hanging: when the call comes will enough people stand alongside the Jewish community?

I hailed it as the Shakespeare production of 2023 and re-affirm that, albeit some quibbles about the editing and pacing of Brigid Larmour’s production remain. It’s fine to move swiftly out of the establishing scene (a Passover Seder) into the play-action, as if in a related dream, but the dialogue can sound truncated. Overall, though, the piece feels more fluent, confident and coherent, and the performances have deepened.

Deploying a middle-European accent and an air of indomitable self-possession, Oberman is a compelling matriarchal presence. Studiedly amused, with veiled bitterness, in her early dealings with the cash-strapped Antonio (Raymond Coulthard’s merchant openly black-shirted), she makes “Hath not a Jew eyes?” sound dispassionately spontaneous, rather than a welter of stored-up indignation. She’s not easily sympathetic, yet we empathise with her, not least in her final, slumped, lonely desolation.

Elsewhere, Hannah Morrish is snootishly spot-on as the Mitford-esque Portia, Grainne Dromgoole ably registers the initial frustration and eventual ostracisation of Shylock’s defecting daughter Jessica, while the servant Gobbo combines comic value and latent toxicity in Jessica Dennis’s Irish-accented turn. A commendable, accomplished and brave venture, all told, that deserves as much support as it can get.

The Merchant of Venice 1936 is at the Criterion Theatre until March 23. Tickets: