“The ghee that cook your dhal is as clarified as that which cooks our lamb”
Shakespeare via South Asia, why not. Shishir Kurup’s Merchant of Vembley transports Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice to North West London but not only that, transposes it into the South Asian community there, pitting a Muslim minority against the Hindi majority so turning the original’s anti-Semitism into an Islamophobia that is far too recognisable in today’s society. Directed by Ajay Chowdhury for Rented Space Theatre Company, the play has been rewritten into a strikingly modern vernacular “complete with profanities, prejudices and pentameter”.
Jeetendra (Bassanio) is a matinée idol-handsome Bollywood star whose star is fading and he’s identified marriage to heiress Pushpa (Portia) as the way to revive his flagging career. In order to avoid accusations of gold-digging, he approaches his besotted businessman friend Devendra (Antonio) in order to be able to flash the cash in wooing her but a short-term cashflow issue leads Devendra to his lender of last resort, the Muslim Sharuk (Shylock), a father struggling to deal with the wilfully independent streak of his daughter Noorani (Jessica).
Kurup has fun in updating and subverting Shakespearean convention which leads to a genuine sense of narrative excitement for once, there’s little that is predictable here. The wedding casket game becomes a choice of three Indian movies selected by an intransigent film-director father, the courtroom becomes a community court of arbitration which allows for a convincing case of local justice being exerted and Pushpa’s role (elegantly portrayed by Aria Prasad) within it is effectively redrawn, even the pound of flesh that Sharuk demands as collateral is a more dangling intimate affair.
And being unafraid to riff on the original allows new insight. The courtroom scenes are given real currency through the recalibrated racial division and Pushpa’s companion Kavita (Nerissa) is given a significant voice at a crucial moment, highlighting the communal intolerance in a much more pointed way than Shakespeare ever allowed (and stunningly performed by Taj Kandula). Sharuk is more empathetic here than Shylock usually is, credit to Emilio Doorgasingh’s beautifully spoken performance of the sometime tricky verse and conversely, Rohit Gokani’s Devendra garners little sympathy, humility has to be wrought out of him.
The text is very densely packed though, fresh ideas and new reference points spinning out of every scene and there are moments when Kurup and Chowdhury might have ideally tightened the play’s focus. That there was a whole raft of sub-Continental jokes that went over my head (but raucously received by many in the audience) is fine, it’s more a sense of dramatic purpose that is sometimes lacking, a concerted storytelling drive that is too easily distracted. (And quite frankly, no matter the cultural context, Lancelot Gobbo or Tooranpoi can just do one!)
So a thoughtful and thought-provoking reinterpretation then and one which explodes across the stage of the Cockpit in a riot of colour, character and culture clash – sometimes messily yes but more often meaningfully.