Fascist Britain focus of RSC's forthcoming Merchant of Venice - The Stratford Observer

Fascist Britain focus of RSC's forthcoming Merchant of Venice

Stratford Editorial 10th Sep, 2023   0

A SHYLOCK like no other will be taking to the stage of the RSC’s Swan Theatre in Stratford in the forthcoming production of The Merchant of Venice.

Set in 1936, Oswald Mosley and the British Union of Fascists plan a march through the Jewish East End and a fragile peace is shattered.

Tracy-Ann Oberman – known for he roles in Eastenders, Doctor Who and Friday Night Dinner – is playing Shylock.

A widow, single mother and survivor of attacks on Jewish people in Russia, she runs a small business from her home in Cable Street.

And Oberman’s family history helped unlock Shakespeare’s enduringly controversial play.

“The women in my family were as tough as nails,” says Oberman, speaking about her great-grandmother and aunts, women with nicknames like Machine-Gun Molly and Sarah Portugal. They came to London from antisemitic eastern Europe at the turn of the last century, and despite all odds managed to build a life and make a living.

Her relatives survived the Battle of Cable Street in 1936 – a little-known event in London’s East End, when the Jewish community was targeted by the British Union of Fascists, led by Oswald Mosely. Mosley’s blackshirts marched through the area, only to be confounded when the non-Jewish community stood by their Jewish neighbours.

In The Merchant of Venice 1936, Shakespeare’s plot snaps into place against this backdrop. Shylock, its anti-hero, is a Jewish moneylender who becomes entangled in the affairs of wealthy non-Jews and suffers terribly for it.

In this new version, Mosely inspires Antonio (Ray Coulthard), the merchant who takes a loan from Shylock and offers a seemingly fanciful penalty for defaulting – a pound of flesh.

The heiress Portia (Hannah Morrish) becomes an icy Mitford sister type – her famous courtroom speech about “the quality of mercy” emerges as an act of hypocrisy rather than humanity.

Oberman says while growing up “the play always fascinated and repulsed me.”

Reclaiming the play from a Jewish perspective has proved a transformative experience.

Directed by Brigid Larmour, it has already enjoyed sell outs runs in Watford and Manchester.

“We’ve had lots of people crying and we get standing ovations,” says Oberman, reflecting on why the show has struck such a chord with spectators. “Whilst they might not have liked my Shylock, they certainly understood why she wants that pound of flesh. She stands in the courtroom with her handbag, with everything stacked against her. A lot of people know that feeling – believing the law is on their side, but discovering it’s only on the side of people that have power.”

Playing Shylock as a woman, she insists, is not about softening the character – “I didn’t want to make her a victim or change her role in the story” – but, she adds, “maybe I underestimated the impact of a female Shylock.

“There are a couple of very shocking moments that really upset audiences. In an early scene Antonio comes to borrow money, and Shylock describes him spitting on her and kicking her like a dog – when that behaviour is directed at a woman, it heightens the antisemitism.

“I think people also see a woman with her rage and anger. She loses her daughter, her money – she loses everything. And when you tell somebody that they’re a monster for long enough, they become that monster.”

The production vividly summons a febrile moment in British history.

“My dream is that the battle of Cable Street will be taught as part of the British civil rights movement,” says Oberman.

“Mosley had been sending his blackshirts down into Cable Street smashing doors, breaking windows, attacking synagogues and people on the streets, putting up the most horrific leaflets straight out of Hitler’s playbook. But my great grandmother always reminded me that their neighbours – their Irish neighbours, the Afro-Caribbean community, the dockers, the working classes – all stood together. That was a beautiful moment.”

The Merchant of Venice 1936 runs in Stratford from September 21 to October 7, before returning from January 24 to February 10. Visit www.rsc.org.uk for full details.



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