Tracy-Ann Oberman is herself no stranger to tough cookies – she’s a formidable actor on stage and screen. But here she is speaking about her great-grandmother and aunts, women with nicknames like Machine-Gun Molly and Sarah Portugal. They came to London from antisemitic eastern Europe at the turn of the last century, and despite all odds managed to build a life and make a living. Oberman’s family history helped unlock Shakespeare’s enduringly controversial play, The Merchant of Venice. Her relatives survived the Battle of Cable Street in 1936 – a little-known event in London’s East End, when the Jewish community was targeted by the British Union of Fascists, led by Oswald Mosely. Mosley’s blackshirts marched through the area, only to be confounded when the non-Jewish community stood by their Jewish neighbours.
In The Merchant of Venice 1936, Shakespeare’s harsh plot snaps brilliantly into place against this backdrop. Shylock, its anti-hero, is a Jewish moneylender who becomes entangled in the affairs of wealthy non-Jews and suffers terribly for it. In this new version, Oswald Mosely inspires Antonio, the merchant who takes a loan from Shylock and offers a seemingly fanciful penalty for defaulting: a pound of flesh. The heiress Portia becomes “a beautiful glacial Mitford type, awful” – her famous courtroom speech about “the quality of mercy” emerges as an act of hypocrisy rather than humanity. And Shylock changes sex, played by Oberman as a single mother, fiercely committed to her independence and her daughter.
Oberman is an impressively versatile actor – diamond sharp on stage at the RSC and National Theatre, in comedies like Friday Night Dinner and Toast of London, and as Dirty Den’s nemesis Chrissie Watts in EastEnders. Yet playing Shylock in The Merchant of Venice was never on her radar – growing up, she says, “the play always fascinated and repulsed me.”
Reclaiming the play from a Jewish perspective has proved a transformative experience. It is directed by Brigid Larmour, who recently stepped down as artistic director of Watford Palace Theatre: the pair of them have become, says Oberman, “walking encyclopaedias of this world.” They assembled a strong company of actors – “We call ourselves the Cable Street Collective!” says Oberman. Ray Coulthard’s sneering Antonio and Hannah Morrish’s icy Portia are chilly foils to this ardent Shylock. The result is "painfully funny, genuinely upsetting – and unexpectedly moving as the events of the play meld with the heightened drama of the Battle of Cable Street."
Having sold out in Watford and Manchester, the production now embarks on an extended tour. “We’ve had lots of people crying and we get standing ovations,” says Oberman, reflecting on why the show has struck such a chord with spectators. “Whilst they might not have liked my Shylock, they certainly understood why she wants that pound of flesh. She stands in the courtroom with her handbag, with everything stacked against her. A lot of people know that feeling – believing the law is on their side, but discovering it's only on the side of people that have power.”
This production sat in Oberman’s head for years, as she researched and planned and waited for lockdowns to pass. But now that it has met an audience, what has surprised her? “The thing that surprised me most was the court case,” she considers. “Just how powerful it was to see this woman backed into a corner by all these men, with the palpable hatred and misogyny. It was electric – you could cut the atmosphere in the auditorium with a knife. That was a revelation.”
Playing Shylock as a woman, she insists, isn’t about softening the character – “I didn't want to make her a victim or change her role in the story” – but, she adds, “maybe I underestimated the impact of a female Shylock. There are a couple of very shocking moments that really upset audiences. In an early scene Antonio comes to borrow money, and Shylock describes him spitting on her and kicking her like a dog – when that behaviour is directed at a woman, it heightens the antisemitism. I think people also see a woman with her rage and anger. She loses her daughter, her money – she loses everything. And when you tell somebody that they're a monster for long enough, they become that monster.”
The production vividly summons a febrile moment in British history. “My dream is that the battle of Cable Street will be taught as part of the British civil rights movement,” Oberman says. “Mosley had been sending his blackshirts down into Cable Street smashing doors, breaking windows, attacking synagogues and people on the streets, putting up the most horrific leaflets straight out of Hitler's playbook. But my great grandmother always reminded me that their neighbours – their Irish neighbours, the Afro-Caribbean community, the dockers, the working classes – all stood together. That was a beautiful moment.”
It is clearly immersed in history – but does this also feel like a show about the present? Absolutely, Oberman says. “At a time when we are looking at Britain's involvement in colonialism and the slave trade, I think we also have to look at Britain's flirtation with fascism. Oswald Mosley and King Edward VIII, both great friends of Hitler, came close to power – we dodged a bullet. The great message of the play is about the pulling together of all communities – we're better together, we're stronger together, especially at times of huge financial and political insecurity. The past shows us what happens when we look inwards: we become very nationalistic and try to pit minorities against each other. We have to be vigilant.”
Oberman doesn’t hide how much this project is personal to her – but it seems she’s not alone. “What has been very moving is how many people want to stay and talk at the end,” she says. What kind of conversations does the play provoke? “A lot of people talk about their own family’s immigrant experience. Young political people want to talk about the Battle of Cable Street, and people who'd never seen a Shakespeare about why they'd found it so accessible. One man came in with about 20 fascist newspapers from the 1930s that he'd found in his father's loft, which we’ve used as part of our graphics. There were big conversations: is the play antisemitic? Was Shakespeare? Lots of really interesting conversations.”
Part of the impetus behind The Merchant of Venice 1936 was teachers telling Oberman they felt anxious about discussing this contentious play in their classrooms. So the production is accompanied by a prolific strand of education work, alongside the activist group Stand Up to Racism. The team have been into schools and created a pack to support teachers. “We've also created an online world which people can look at before or after seeing the play. It's an incredible resource talking about the play, the 1930s, the history of antisemitism and racism, Oswald Mosley, everything you could want.”
It’s still rare to see a woman standing dead centre in a Shakespeare production – though Oberman tells me, “I can honestly say that when I went into this, it was never with an ego about playing Shylock, it was about wanting to tell the story. I just put my soul into it.” And has it been the experience she hoped? “Every single bit of it has been a complete joy. It's been more than a piece of theatre – for me, it's been a mission. And it lived up to all my expectations.”
Photography by Tristram Kenton