It’s 1936 in the East End of London and Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts are on the march.

Transposed into this is a cast of characters who were first imagined as citizens of late 16th century Venice. The lives of these characters, Jew and Gentile, men and women, rich and poor, exist to teach timeless lessons in love and hate, hubris and bitterness, and that most enduring question…what it is to be human.  

Shylock, Antonio, Portia and the gang have been represented and reimagined in countless varieties and locations ever since Shakespeare put quill to parchment in 1596. Some of those productions were good, some were bad, and some were downright anti-Semitic. A new adaptation at HOME in Manchester by Brigid Larmor and Tracy-Ann Oberman is superb.

Merchant of Venice, HOME, Manchester. Credit: Marc Brenner.

Merchant of Venice, HOME, Manchester. Credit: Marc Brenner.

It began as a conversation between the two after an awards ceremony in 2018 when Oberman told Larmor (who adapted and directs the play) that she was exploring the idea of a female Shylock as an East End matriarch in the 1930s, inspired by her great-grandmother, Annie. 

Fast forward five years and we have an adaptation that sees what is perhaps the theatre’s most famous Jewish character transformed into a woman, a mother and an immigrant who, 30 years earlier, had fled the savage, murderous anti-Jewish pogroms in the Russian Empire.

Shylock has never lost her accent and has clung to her identity as a Jew, a lifebelt in a life that has been shot through with fear, discrimination and hardship. She’s been successful as a moneylender and built a prosperous life for herself and her daughter.

She is also suspicious, bitter and brittle. It’s a brittleness born of hatred, a hatred born of oppression. And nothing good ever came of hatred. 

Antonio, played by Raymond Coulthard, is a wealthy city trader, a man about town, an officer in the British Union of Fascists, a good friend to his friends, and an anti-Semite. His hatred of Jews, which he wears openly, is habitual, hereditary and ingrained. And nothing good ever came of hatred.

Gradually, the lives of the two chief protagonists become entwined in a most dangerous and destructive manner (no plot spoilers here). And, into this vortex of hate, the lives of others are inexorably drawn, most notably Portia, played by Hannah Morish as a wealthy heiress who’s desperate to avoid an arranged marriage, and Shylock’s love-struck young daughter, Jessica, played by Gráinne Dromgoole.

As Shylock, Oberman delivers a spellbinding performance, a performance of a lifetime. From the moment she first appears and recites the Hamotzi, she immerses herself completely in the character, convincing the audience they are witnesses to the life of a Jewish matriarch, and a Jewish matriarch’s life on steroids at that.

Merchant of Venice, HOME, Manchester. Credit: Marc Brenner.

Merchant of Venice, HOME, Manchester. Credit: Marc Brenner.

And if there’s ever been a finer, more moving performance of the humanity-defining speech ‘Hath not a Jew eyes?…If you prick us, do we not bleed?’ then I’ve yet to see it.

In an excellent ensemble performance, special mention must be made of Coulthard’s powerfully menacing performance as Antonio, the perfect foil for Oberman’s Shylock. And Morish hits all the right notes in a nuanced and compelling performance as a very English Portia, while Dromgoole as Jessica and Priyank Morjaria as Lorenzo are adept in evoking our sympathy as the naive but fundamentally good young couple.            

At a time when so much of what passes for culture is devoid of colour, character and courage, it is wonderful to see HOME stage this magnificent adaptation. The Merchant of Venice requires the audience to think for themselves. Shakespeare’s message, in my humble opinion, was always clear. It is testified to by Shylock’s impassioned speech on the nature of a man, and Portia’s courtroom plea on behalf of the quality of mercy, even if those invoking it fail to show it themselves. And it’s evident too in this, a fine, must-see adaptation: we are all human, for good and ill. And while you’re here, be a mensch.

By Alfred Searls

Main image by Marc Brenner

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The Merchant of Venice is at HOME, Manchester until March 25, 2023. For more information, click here.