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The Upside Down: Operation Shylock

John Mitchinson on why Shakespeare’s most problematic play still has plenty to teach us

Tracy-Ann Oberman as Shylock in ‘The Merchant of Venice 1936’. Photo: Marc Brenner

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The final scene in Brigid Larmour and Tracy-Ann Oberman’s powerfully redemptive production of The Merchant of Venice 1936, currently touring the UK, is one that will long haunt me. 

In Shakespeare’s text, an outwitted Shylock confesses he is “content” with his forced conversion to Christianity and pleads to be allowed to leave the impromptu court. “I am not well,” he adds weakly and leaves never to be seen again. Not so in this production. 

Oberman plays Shylock as a resourceful and charismatic Jewish matriarch in the East End of the 1930s. Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists are gaining traction and her house is daubed with antisemitic graffiti. Antonio, played by Raymond Coulthard, is a slick Blackshirt and Hannah Morrish’s Portia, an icy upper-class bitch, in the Mitford vein. 

As the final act of comedic resolution plays out and the lovers’ quarrels are resolved, Oberman’s Shylock stands in the middle of the stage like a ghost, observing just how little impact her intervention has had on the lives of the privileged fools around her. She is the alien, the uninvited, the underclass, the excluded. She is everyone who has put her faith in the rule of law only to discover that the law is really just a game played by the powerful to retain their power. It is a devastating and profound piece of theatre. 

Establishing what Shakespeare intended in his portrayal of Shylock has raged down the centuries. Is his/her desire for revenge justified by the treatment he/she receives?

The first sympathetic portrayal that we know of is probably Edmund Kean at Drury Lane in 1814, who so impressed William Hazlitt that he claimed it changed theatre for ever (“the first gleam of genius breaking athwart the gloom of the stage”).

More recently, Laurence Olivier channelled Disraeli in Jonathan Miller’s 1970 production, and located modern antisemitism in the intersection of economics and power.

And in Bill Alexander’s 1987 production, Anthony Sher played Shylock with a thick accent and a viciously unreconstructed bloodthirstiness, which simultaneously highlighted the antisemitism he was subject to while tempering the audience’s sympathy at his plight. 

Oberman and Lamour’s interpretation does something altogether bolder. 

By casting Shylock as a woman, the audience is even more focused on the casual vitriol directed towards her by the rest of the cast (“you call me misbeliever, cut-throat dog, and spit upon my Jewish gabardine”).

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We watch their hatred being enabled by the rise of fascism, culminating in the trial scene where Portia – as cos-play judge – delivers her famous ‘the quality of mercy is not strained’ speech, which here lands like the worst kind of hypocritical cant. As Oberman’s Shylock fights her corner, our sympathy is never in doubt: it feels very like a Twitter pile-on, with Graziano (Xavier Starr here a pitch-perfect Bullingdon Club bully) calling after her that she deserves the hangman’s noose more than the baptismal font. 

The production ends with another non-Shakespearean coup de théâtre.

Led by Oberman/Shylock the cast transform into a group of protestors inviting the audience to join them on stage under hand-painted ‘they shall not pass’ banners. Suddenly, we’re in the Battle of Cable Street in 1936 when as many as a quarter of million people – including Jewish, Irish and other immigrant communities, as well as confederations of trade unionists, communists and anarchists – turned out on the streets in solidarity to prevent Mosley’s fascists marching through the East End (a march that the police did their best to enable). 

It allows this brave production to end on a positive note, even though I couldn’t shift the nagging fact that it was these same militant East End dockers that went on strike 30 years later to protest the sacking of Enoch Powell after his ‘rivers of blood’ speech. 

Still, a play, however political its aims, is never simply a manifesto and the abiding image I took from this production is that of the ‘invisible’ Shylock observing the world that had already forgotten her. 

That scene also reminded me what the best theatre does: it shows us that something can be both true and artificial. When I watch Tracy-Ann Oberman, possessed by the spirit of Annie, her great-grandmother who had escaped the pogroms of imperial Russia only to find the streets of her beloved London defaced by fascist slogans, delivering the words of an Elizabethan who has been dead for four centuries, I know perfectly well she is playing a part – that her emotion is somehow both real and invented – but it still leaves me moved, excited, changed. 

This is something that only live performance can do: offering entry to a paradoxical, unstable space – there’s so much that could go wrong (and sometimes does) that even the most sophisticated, perfection-driven AI will never be able to replicate it.

It is, by definition, unprogrammable.

‘The Merchant of Venice 1936’ is touring the UK until February 2024

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