Friday Night Dinner and Eastenders' Tracy Ann Oberman on coming to Yorkshire in a play she's always hated
“I have always hated The Merchant of Venice” is not the first thing you expect to hear from an actress promoting their new touring production of The Merchant of Venice. But Tracy-Ann Oberman’s frank appraisal helps explain why she has spent years on bringing a new adaptation of the controversial Shakespeare play to life.
The story she has co-created with director Brigid Larmour remains centered around a merchant called Antonio defaulting on a loan provided by Jewish moneylender Shylock at the disputed cost of “a pound of flesh” – but this version, called The Merchant of Venice 1936, is transported to 1930s London and changes Shylock’s gender from male to female.
The plot sees single mother Shylock (played by Oberman) running a pawnbroking business from her house in the East End ahead of the Battle of Cable Street in which Oswald Mosley’s fascist Blackshirts attempted to march through Jewish neighbourhoods but were seen off by the local community.
It is a considerable change of emphasis for a play that has long been accused of anti-semitism and was frequently performed in Nazi Germany; albeit in an edited form with lines meant to evoke sympathy for Shylock – including the famous ‘Hath not a Jew eyes?’ monologue – cut out.
Oberman, who famously played Chrissie Watts in EastEnders and Aunty Val in comedy Friday Night Dinner, says: “It is a really difficult play and in my opinion, it has always been taught very badly in schools. It was Hitler’s favourite play, which says something about the impact the character of Shylock has and it buys into all the tropes of Jews being mean and untrustworthy and money-grabbing and wanting a pound of Christian flesh.”
But she says she was inspired to see if a new perspective could be found on the play by changing Shylock’s sex and setting it in a different historical moment after seeing an all-female adaptation of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.
Oberman says: "I thought of my own great-grandmother who had come over to England on a boat from Belarus escaping the pogroms and violence against Jews. She came over here when she was 14 and slept on a factory floor for a penny a week and lived in slum tenements and the East End. She came face-to-face with Oswald Mosley at the Battle of Cable Street.
"I just wondered what it would do to the play to make Shylock a female and what it would do to her relationship with her daughter and also what it would be like to have a strong, tough matriarch standing up against these aristocratic fascists and anti-semites and racists.”
Oberman and Larmour started working together on the idea.
"We did a huge amount of research on Mosley and 1930s fascism and anti-semitism. At a time when we are looking at our own history of slave trade colonisation, we should also look at a fact we dodged a bullet when Edward abdicated because he was a great friend of Hitler’s. Oswald Mosley married Diana Mitford at Goebbels’ house with Hitler as a witness. Hitler gave Mosley the playbook on how to whip Jewish hatred to get working-class support for his political leanings.”
The show was originally due to tour theatres in 2020 but performances were cancelled as a result of the pandemic. Oberman says she feared the production would never see the light of day but it is now booked in for a UK tour this autumn and winter which will include a week at York’s Theatre Royal after already initially being staged in Watford and Manchester to glowing reviews.
"I’m so happy me and Bridget beavered away and made it better and stronger and we have ended with this brilliant production,” she says.
Oberman says she has provided her Shylock with a nuanced rather than sympathetic portrayal, in keeping with how Shakespeare wrote the character.
"I have made her unsympathetic and absolutely stayed true to who that character is. I haven’t made her sympathetic at all. I think people assumed I was going to make her more of a victim and more of a hero and I absolutely haven’t. I’ve seen productions where Shylock is absolutely the villain and I’ve seen it where Shylock is absolutely the victim. Neither of them have sat that well with me.
"Shakespeare wrote this during a time of huge anti-semitism. Shakespeare’s audiences expected and wanted to be able to jeer at a Jewish character that ultimately was destroyed at the end and converted to Christianity, totally cowed by church and state.
"But where he is such a brilliant writer is that he could write, ‘Hath not a Jew eyes, hath not a Jew hands?’ and made this character humane. I wanted to honour that so I’ve made this character unequivocally tough like the matriarchs I grew up with. I haven’t made her the victim at all but I’ve made her so that hopefully you can understand why Shylock wants that pound of flash from Antonio – a man who has spat at her, kicked her and absolutely loathes her.”
Oberman says it has all been good to raise awareness of the fight against British fascism and delve into her own family history.
"The Battle of Cable Street was a real civil rights moment we rarely talk about in England. Oswald Mosley, with Hitler’s help, went around the country particularly in Manchester and Leeds and it was all leading up to Cable Street. He took his private militia, hundreds of them, and he was marching down to attack the Jewish working-class community.
"In the weeks before, they did lots of mini-Kristallnachts, smashing up synagogues and Jewish homes. My grandmother and great-grandmother always told me about the leaflets going up everywhere talking about the ‘untrustworthy Jew’.
"On the day when he marched out with his militia and protected by the police, what he didn’t reckon on was all the working-class communities all pulled together and said if you come for the Jews, you come for us all. They all stood on the streets. My great-uncle was pushed through a plate-glass window by the blackshirts. The women came down and they all linked arms and said you shall not pass and they were forced back.
"At a time when there is a lot of economic insecurity around the world and we’re finding scapegoats from our problems and there are very nefarious sources trying to pit minorities against each other, the message I would love people to take away from this play is we are better together, stronger together and prouder together when we stand together and don’t let others fight amongst ourselves.
“What I love is my family experience in telling this story seems to have connected to lots of different people who told me about their strong mums or their family who came over on the Windrush. I have spoken to Somalian kids talking about their grandmothers and aunties.
"This has been a real career highlight for me, this really has been a labour of love.
"To have a project that speaks to people, as well as telling a personal story and reclaiming a very difficult play, has meant everything to me.”
Tracy-Ann Oberman stars in the UK Tour of The Merchant of Venice 1936 at Theatre Royal, York from 14-18 November. Tickets: https://merchantofvenice1936.co.uk/