The Merchant of Venice 1936: Review

Starring EastEnders and Friday Night Dinner star, Tracy Ann-Oberman, this politically charged adaptation of a Shakespeare classic will hit you with an array of emotions. Set in a pre-world war two Britain, we watch as the Jewish character of Shylock becomes victim to an antisemitic world. I know that the Merchant of Venice is a well-known tale, but I don’t want to give too much away about the director’s clever take on this story, and how they turned it into such a powerful piece. The underlying themes of religion in this story are brought into the limelight which, when teamed with the era of 1936, in the lead up to the beginning of world war 2, makes everything much more poignant. In the 1930’s, Britain had an active Fascist party, led by Sir Oswald Mosley. A party whose views matches those of Hitler.

Production Photography: Marc Brenner

A simple yet effective decision made by the creative team was the use of projections to display newspaper headlines from that time; we see a mixture of articles from both the Fascist party and from the perspective of the Jewish people. These projections cover the whole stage, including the characters, highlighting that they truly are immersed into this life. In the beginning of this tale, we see Shylock as more of a villainous character that may be disliked. However, as the show goes on and we eventually reach the famous court scene of this story, we witness her fall from a powerful woman to a victim of the world around her.

At the beginning of the show, the characters enter through the audience, addressing us directly with friendly “hellos” and inviting us into their home on the stage. We then join them as they light a candle and say a prayer before they switch into different Shakespearean characters and proceed with the story. If you pay close attention, you notice that this is done in modern language. My interpretation of this decision is that they wanted to invite us into the story and highlight that this isn’t just a play, but a real-life experience to some. The same is done at the end of the show, where a strong political message is portrayed, and we are invited to show our support. A message that stands strong even in the world we live in today.

Production Photography: Marc Brenner

The director, Brigid Larmour, made a few other clever decisions to make this show work. You’ll notice that some of the characters have changed gender, this was done to make the show feel more realistic for the era of 1936. Larmour also cut the script shorter and altered some of the language to make it easier for the audience to follow, which is especially important if you’re not so familiar with the works of Shakespeare. I love Shakespeare, but, in my opinion, productions of his works often drag on for too long. I was worried that this would happen with this production, but to my relief it did not. It was the perfect adaptation of the script to get the point across without losing any important elements of the story nor exhausting us as an audience.

The Merchant of Venice 1936 is in the New Theatre in Cardiff until Saturday 4th November. It’s one of the best Shakespeare adaptations I’ve seen in a long time, and one that is so poignant it will sit with me forever. Get your tickets here: