Review: The Merchant of Venice 1936, Watford Palace Theatre

Shifting Shakespeare into the 1930s proves a masterclass in adaptation in The Merchant of Venice 1936 at Watford Palace Theatre

“If you prick us, do we not bleed?”

There is not much that is subtle about Brigid Larmour and Tracy-Ann Oberman’s adaptation of The Merchant of Venice here but sometimes that is what is needed. Placing The Merchant of Venice 1936 squarely in the middle of the rise of fascism in 1930s Britain, among the surface glam of the Mosleys and the Mitfords, speaks loudly to the worrying trends in contemporary society of a particular brand of anti-semitism and intolerance.

Such is the forcefulness of its portrayal of ‘homegrown’ fascist thought that the fact that Shylock is a woman here, played by Oberman, almost doesn’t register. But as the production progresses, it surely does, a pawnbroker and single mother, her matriarchal energy growing in response to the anti-semitic rhetoric launched at her, now tinged with misogyny too. The outrage that grows in her thus feels more earned than ever, an instinctive response to the societal decline around her.

The embodiment of this comes through most in Raymond Coulthard’s bullyboy Antonio, a Blackshirt (despite being a raging homo as Jeremy Irons so memorably did in Al Pacino’s film version) who sickeningly cheers the courtroom decision with his bros. And Hannah Morrish’s Mitford-esque Portia layers in new meaning to her journey to increased power and influence at the expense of any and everyone she doesn’t care for.

Liz Cooke’s design uses greyness and glass to haunting effect, even if the introduction of projections feels a little overegged. But Larmour’s production does little else wrong, evoking something of Sarah Phelps’ transformative adaptations of Agatha Christie in its hugely effective reinvention of how we see the play. And given she was recently scoring the lolz in Noises Off, Oberman really is in something of a purple patch, particularly as her work here draws from her own family’s experiences. Hauntingly good.

Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes (with interval)
Photos: Marc Brenner
The Merchant of Venice 1936 is booking at Watford Palace Theatre until 11th March, at HOME Manchester 15th-25th March and then tours

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