The Merchant of Venice: 1936 @ Criterion Theatre, London

Set in Cable Street, East London, this version of Shakespeare’s play pits a working class Jewish/immigrant community against elite and establishment fascists. Do sit in the stalls as the play has some interactive moments and you get to be a part of this vibrant East End community.

Intriguingly Shylock (Tracy-Ann Oberman) is a female Jewish moneylender, interacting with a ‘Christian’ fascist British upper class, with limits. This gives her relationship with her daughter more nuance, as she’s working to provide for her family and very much the matriarch. It also gives Shylock increased vulnerability when she’s in a male dominated courtroom, shamed, manipulated, othered, reduced. And mocked in public as a joke, along with vile posters pasted to her door and fear on the streets.

Commenting on 1930s British elites (and today too), the East end Jewish community Shylock is part of is pitted against institutional fascists, of England rather than Venice. Strangely Portia is being forced into an arranged marriage in an exceptionally strange way. I felt sorry for her, even though perhaps I shouldn't — as she’s part of the fascist elite.

Jewishness was also portrayed in a nuanced way, with cultural variations. Shylock mourned the loss of her daughter (and goods) comforted outside the synagogue — and her comforter went in, whilst she remained outside. Shabbat was conducted in a mixture of languages.

There are gorgeous 1930s costumes, apart from Jessica (Shylock’s daughter) who is strangely in 1920s cosplay. What? (Though I’m not sure why she’d want to run away to this elite ‘Christian’ society as they seem neither properly Christian nor kind — they were so mean and cruel about her cultural background to her face). This was another thing I didn’t understand, apart from all the ‘Dukes’ — why did Jessica even love Lorenzo or want to be with him? He was very much a part of this mean hearted society. Much better to be Shabbating with the community in joy and love.

The ending (the Battle of Cable Street) was incredibly moving, with members of the audience invited to come and join, stand, hold the banner, be a part of the communal protest against fascism, antisemitism and institutional racism. But the jump to get there was clunky — and lost me. I didn’t know the play, which felt quite edited to the bare bones. (There seemed to be a lot of Duke types). One moment we were in a Shakespeare crowd scene (chat heavy); the next we were protesting in Cable Street. I need more transition to get there! I’m still not sure how the play ended, although the court scene was powerful, with its twisting of the law against Shylock. I don’t get the pound of flesh at all. Extremes, thinking to win?

Mixed in with the play was footage of Mosley in full flow, marching Blackshirts and the ways that the local Jewish working class community sort to protect themselves and their neighbours. At a time when antisemitism is positively fashionable again, ‘they shall not pass’ is incredibly resonant, and the legacy of Cable Street deserves celebration. This point is enhanced by the decoration around the Criterion Theatre — some shocking posters from the time, as well as a protest poster and a banner of Mosley.

The Merchant of Venice is a really strange play though and all in all, I came away wanting either a full Merchant of Venice, or a play about Cable Street (there is a musical currently) or a play about working class communities fighting oppression. It’s not that it doesn’t work, but it left me wanting more Shakespeare and more Cable Street, separately.

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Cultures: Arts Reviews and Views by Susan Tailby

By Susan Tailby. Appreciator of arts and culture; things I've seen and enjoyed and you might too! Reviews all my own opinion....Theatre, Movies, Dance & Art!