The Merchant of Venice 1936

Malvern Theatres


Well, a Merchant of Venice that proved outstanding in countless respects - except in one.

A lot of hoo-hah has gone on in tiresomely rather typically smug publicity about a ‘new’, ‘fresh’ or ‘original’ idea.’ This is to do with Director Brigid Larmour’s decision – not a bad thought in essence – to transfer the play to, if not the modern day, to a day not so long ago.

This is the new, fresh, original idea behind this version from Trafalgar Theatre and Eilene Davidson Productions, a version created in association with the RSC, who provided unrivalled research and devlopment on the project.

The horrendous experience, not of German Jews voraciously hounded to death by Hitler, but more especially of British Jews, who were subjected to the ruthless onslaughts of Sir Oswald Mosley’s blackshirts, the British Union of Fascists, until (as at the end of the play) the UK’s left wing emerged on to the streets – one particular street – and took on the monstrous opposition.

Well, all good so far. No harm at all in updating. The trouble is that, taking aboard and condemning one of the most appalling, shameful experiences of Britain in the earlier half of last century, one has to hammer home, to blast out, the point to considerable effect. It needs rich, and clever, varied, exemplary and powerful illustration. What was this Merchant of Venice 1936, but Shakespeare plus a few half-baked ideas?

Sad to say, this aspect proved all a bit vapid; slightly like jumping on a current bandwagon (minorities, etc.). Yes, there were half a dozen full-size black and white images on the cyclorama depicting, aptly and rather gruesomely (actually a bit like a child’s comic book or a Steve Bell cartoon nowadays), Mosley himself, or his followers, and indeed showing what a nightmare he unleashed.

Yes, latterly irascible Gratiano (Xavier Starr, magnificent, and yes, he could have made a blackshirt) and the beleaguered Antonio (Raymond Coulthard, superb, though highly unlikely to don a fascist scarlet armband) and Bassanio – insanely spelt ‘Bassiano’ in both cast list and credits, given that Portia (the truly wonderful Hannah Morrish) audibly calls him Bassanio; and all three, a bit ludicrously, given they don’t constantly display them, chose to wear armbands when they went to Portia’s dwelling in ‘Belmont’.  Bassanio’s her most sought-after suitor, for goodness’ sake.

A case of ‘oh yes, let’s give them Nazi or Mosleyite armbands, and that will make this story terribly 1930s-ish’.

The idea went phut. It simply wasn’t developed enough to impact. In effect, a rather feeble, tacky add-on.


Special credit, however: the production stuck almost totally to Shakespeare’s text. The opening preface, in which Shylock (Tracy-Ann Oberman – glorious) presides over a prayer-led Jewish meal, was an excellent idea. Timeless. Universal. Nothing to do with the 1930s. But ever so moving and effective. It set just the right tone for Shylock’s forthcoming endeavours, and fall. Antonio’s chums Salarino and Salanio were both ditched. Another good idea, they are, to a degree, pretty empty; just courtiers. A few of their lines may, or may not, have been reallocated to Gratiano, in which case, good again. Tubal is retained, a little too rearstage, but for some reason renamed ‘Yuval’: to be fair, an actual male or female Jewish first name; and it didn’t matter.

Gone too were the comics: not exactly Shakespeare’s funniest piece of writing (contrast Touchstone, Bottom, or indeed the Porter from Macbeth, so unforgettably played by Alison Peebles in the RSC’s recent Macbeth). Launcelot Gobbo and his dad Old Gobbo are, as Larmour and Oberman ‘adapting’ this showed, not crucial. Binning them – unless Jessica’s tender exchange with them remains - leaves us without the (supposedly) comic subplot (thus Jessica and Lorenzo are the principal subplot here), but makes us concentrate on the main thesis, and on Shylock. Not just a perfectly acceptable decision. In fact, rather a sensible one.

Slimmed down a bit – a fraction – did this Merchant no harm. Now one of the big issues, I think also alluded to in the publicity, is that we can, possibly should, feel sympathy – some identification – with Shylock. Well of course. Despite the vicious lines of Gratiano near the end of the trial - here he’s portrayed as a real tough, even a thug, a sort of Rik Mayall - Shakespeare gives to Shylock one of the two most important speeches (the other of course is Portia’s) in the play; indeed in any of his plays: “Hath not a Jew eyes, hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions?...If you prick us, do we not bleed?” Unfortunately he culminates with “…and if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?”    

But Shylock, in the same speech, has a defence, of sorts, to even that revenge: this, he tells us (accurately, for England in the 1930s?) is what a Christian would seek. “The villainy you teach me I shall execute, and it will go hard but I will better the instruction.” Not: Do as you would be done by. But: An eye for an eye….

Those tragic words, “I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew …” render this the most famous defence of Jewry in English literature. Until Shylock later goes ahead with his sneering, relentless threat, and despite his nasty “To bait fish withal: if it will feed nothing else, it will feed my revenge” we have certainly begun to feel for him. Perhaps, all the cast surmises, this is just bravado.

Curious, given that Leviticus 19:13 stipulates that taking personal vengeance is strictly forbidden in the law. In fact, no one should/could 'take vengeance' or even 'bear a grudge' against their people, but were to love their neighbour as themselves. Was Shylock acting against his own rules? However, a caveat: views differ about what ‘neighbours’ actually denotes.


But then, “Is it possible a dog should lend 3,000 ducats? “As so often, the casting of an outstanding actor/actress like Tracy-Ann Oberman proves how terrific they usually are – how they excel - in male roles, especially in Shakespeare: Timon, Lear, King John. Hopefully we’ll see more of the opposite, too (Mark Rylance as Olivia) as well.     

Only minuscule adaptations of the text are obligatory (Shylock is, for example, Jessica’s (Gráinne Dromgoole, delightful) ‘mother’; a few ‘she’s and ‘her’s are quite harmlessly dotted around. The play suffers not one jot. Oberman’s speaking – including cursing her errant daughter - is impeccable at every turn. Real polished delivery. Actually the speaking of the whole cast deserves applause. If this was something Larmour, directing, aimed for, she was enormously successful.

And quite apart from “I am a Jew”, Shylock’s riposte “Yes, to smell pork… I will buy with you, sell with you, talk with you… but I will not eat with you, drink with you, nor pray with you” may underline a distinct culture, but is scarcely hostile to Jewry: rather, an accurate depiction. And here of course, quite beautifully spoken.   

Rory Beaton’s lighting created all the right, apt effects, including some chiaroscuro (e.g. at the opening repast). The costumes (Liz Cooke) were truly wondrous, not just Shylock’s, at times sinister, but above all Portia’s (gorgeous gold, brilliantly shaped dress, that was indeed 1930s, not 1590s). Her change(s) of attire, and her turnout as the Advocate, were super-duper: utterly scrumptious. So were those for Nerissa, her savvy, omnipresent soubrette (Jessica Dennis).

Raymond Coulthard’s Antonio was to me so convincing: at the least, in the main. Antonio (a role I played myself, at school) has his moments, but is not as strongly drawn (by the Bard) as he might be. The most arresting moment – the moment when he draws back Bassanio for a kiss on the lips – was a definite hit. At 15 I worked out that Antonio’s love was – to a degree – gay, Bassanio (given Portia) being definitely het. But a funny detail is that doubling as a gloriously arrogant Aragon (the second, or silver, suitor), full of Hispanic flourishes, a sort of Don Armado (Love’s Labour’s Lost) or Don Ferolo Whiskerandos (Sheridan’s The Critic) with knobs on, he was of course – coincidentally – rivalling the patently “extravagant”, possibly playboy, Bassanio.

Antonio is somewhat wet in his ‘sadness’; somewhat doomed in his passion; somewhat naïve, even foolish, in not reckoning the possibility of a glut of typhoons wiping out all three of his argosies (treasure ships) from the West and East Indies and to the south (foundering off Tripoli, presumably Libya, not Syria)  without double insuring by smaller borrowings his debt to Shylock (let alone in Venice or Florence, of all places, cities of bankers; and unthinkable in 1936). It’s odd if understandable that he sent Bassanio off (“Try what my credit can in Venice do”) to find a lender and then, with all his likely contacts, Shylock should be the only person he can turn to.

But the performances that set me on fire were those of the girls playing girls.

Belmonte is in Italian Calabria, more like 620 rather than 20 miles from Venice. Portia’s gorgeous – I think, gold Lamé? Certainly as stupendous – garment is the one she wears for the three suitors’ visits. The Prince of Morocco, redubbed here as a ‘Maharajah’: there is of course still a Crown Prince of Morocco, but no big issue with this, is entertainingly played (doubling as Lorenzo) by Priyank Morjaria, although effortlessly upstaged, needless to say, by Coulthard’s flamboyant, flouncing, all but flamencoing Arragon (2 ‘r’s: why? The Spanish is Aragón; Catalan Aragó).  


Third and final suitor is Bassanio – or ‘Bassiano’ - himself. Gavin Fowler makes a rather sweet character, able to foul-mouth Shylock, and not exactly lordly. He reminds one rather of one of those worthy, loyal ancillaries - Benvolio, for instance. Bassanio needs to be a pretty boy, possibly fair, young (say 18-24), even inadvertently, or more likely consciously, even flirtatiously, sexy, for Antonio to dote on him. Fowler would have made an excellent Lorenzo, speaking that lovely envoi perhaps. Bassanio – well, maybe.

Every time Hannah Morrish as Portia stepped onto the stage, we were treated to a cocktail of charm, beauty, delicacy, taste, and supremely good acting. She exercised command, but was dignified, elegant and not bossy. She had a wry sense of humour – her later dressing up must have provided some laughter, to Dennis’s Nerissa at least. Wigs could be a disaster, but Liz Cooke’s for the two women, fabulously contrasted, were inspired. Entrancing.

I had forgotten we meet Portia so early in the Merchant. Her interplay with Nerissa in scene 2, possibly a little, but sensibly, trimmed, shone. Nerissa could put on an accent here, and I do believe she did – Irish? If so, inconsistent – “What say you, then to Faulconbridge, the young Baron of England?” The poor lad seems to have got the boot already. Portia: “Who can converse with a dumb-show? I think he bought his doublet in Italy, his bonnet in Germany, and his behaviour every where” (but speaks and understands no Latin, French, nor Italian”). These two girls play their sense of humour off one another: and how masterfully (if that’s not a misnomer) they played it here. An absolute joy to listen to, and a thrill to watch – in Portia’s case, every little move or gesture.

And it’s they, not the crestfallen, fascist-armbanded, somewhat belatedly chest-baring Antonio (in fact he reveals it scarcely at all – definitely a weakness; another is that no 1930s blackshirt (qv brown shirt) would likely be hauled to court by a Jew anyway - who are the stars of the court scene. Strangely it was not Portia’s (the text calls her Balthazar, a famous but sick advocate’s stand-in, “a young doctor of Rome”) “The quality of mercy is not strain’d” speech, but the many brilliant traps with which she deceives Shylock, for all his “It is my hour…I can give no reason” or “a Daniel come for judgment” that stood out. Antonio is the one with the long submissive speeches here: his almost weedy acquiescence (a blackshirt’s acquiescence??) is finely given voice to by Coulthard, again in fine form. Comes good by offering the money (the cause of all this drama), and even doubling it.

The moment Portia and Nerissa arrive wigless before a well-played Duke (Alex Zur, always impactful in smaller roles too), they hit one in the solar plexus. Hannah Morrish was a phenomenally beautiful girl. She was an even more beautiful haircut boy. Much of her impact drew upon this astounding fact. No wonder they all thought she was a chap, and hence were more swayed by her/him than ever. “The Jew shall have all justice”; “Thou shall have nothing but the forfeiture”, and her astonishing “The law hath yet another hold on you” long speech, were simply gripping: brought by Larmour significantly to front stage, Morrish provided a marvel of speaking, and acting. The double rings wheeze was witty and entertaining. One of the best Portias ever seen on an English stage? The role is a winner anyway, but I’d guess so.

Abetted by Nerissa (Jessica Dennis): always present, each time backing up, but always made relevant: laughing, mischievous, cavorting, party to the risky but daring plan, firm when on silent duty at the hearing, here was another fine – and memorable – performer. A lovely change of dress to enticing blue. And she can sing. Divinely.

Indeed, the girls scored yet again, with a delightful, believable Jessica (Shylock’s absconding daughter, Dromgoole). Starting at a desk, dressed like a demure schoolgirl, seemingly serving as her father’s secretary, and then dressing for the escape, and effecting it, this Jessica and her imprisoning family ‘betrayal’ (there is no real mother in the original) seemed confident and daring. The exquisite Act 5 opener; “in such a night as this” Morjaria slightly threw away, but the brief exchanges (they too have made it to Belmont) were touching, with Jessica’s final “Stealing her soul with many vows of faith” topping the lot, before interrupted. An addition: Nancy Farino made an enchanting, multi-curtseying maid. Almost a star turn herself.

It should of course be emphasised that all this benefited by first-rate Direction from co-adapter Brigid Larmour. At every point she seemed to position each actor in the right place: her definition of the roles – all of them – was always well worked out: lucid - if in the fellows’ cases might have been better still, but only in some minor aspects of detail. Working with the cast she had, she made an extremely, deliciously presented job of it. Liz Cooke’s set and table props added not much (apart from the back projections, delivered and seemingly researched by Rory Beaton with Cooke or Larmour or both).

A word however about Gratiano, Xavier Starr. He has the smallest credits, honestly stated in the very desirable Programme, he has, he or his agent tells us, just graduated from the Central School. He was I thought frankly one of the best: excellent in every way. A handsome tall almost Hitler Youth fair-haired bully boy, hectoring, almost shouting from the start, exuding unusual malice, he gave Gratiano a distinct personality, sometimes booming, always domineering yet expressive in his laudably clear speaking.  Here, surely, is a Coriolanus, an Andronicus, an Arturo Ui, maybe even a Caliban in the making.

Good news, then. But almost every aspect of Brigid Larmour’s production is just that. I enjoyed it hugely.   

Roderic Dunnett


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