THE SCENE and period may have shifted, the genders changed and the poetry hacked to suit the purpose but this Merchant is an engaging watch and, as is so often the case, asks enough difficult questions to leave us as baffled as ever about with whom our loyalties should lie.
An East End under siege from the growing rise of British copycat fascism, driven by ruthless commerce and, behind the grey facades, the vulnerable warmth of a Jewish family. The antisemitism – whether casual or pointed – mounts and the gradual increase in the number of armbands on show is an ominous and effective touch.
Nazi salutes, black-booted uniforms and a regular stream of images and facts projected the width of the stage never let us forget for a moment which way Brigid Larmour’s direction is taking us.
Central to the whole production is the performance of Tracy-Ann Oberman as the fierce matriarch and businesswoman Shylock. And what an impressive performance it is – commanding, assured with a wit that is biting and dismissive. This is a woman not to be messed with.
Excellent support is there throughout. Raymond Coulthard’s Antonio and Hannah Morrish’s steely, slightly bloodless Portia catch the eye among many. The staging is slick, the casket scenes are funny and the blending into the mix of plenty of Jewish culture works perfectly.
The play’s perennial trouble spots come when, in a highly combative, antagonistic trial scene, our thoughts are as divided as they ever were about where sympathy should lie.
Oberman’s calculated refusal to budge tests righteousness to its limit and the crushing vindictiveness of those who eventually win in the eyes of the law makes for as uncomfortable a watch as this moment has ever been. A drunken toff screaming insults is never a pretty sight, whether it’s worse because the target is both Jewish and a woman is probably a personal call.
Beaten and humiliated, and with the fascists gaining in strength on her doorstep, Shylock – and this whole production – suddenly finds strength in common humanity and popular protest and the tale ends in a triumphant re-enactment of Cable Street in 1936 and the people linking arms to stand in the way of Britain’s own fascist movement.
It’s a powerful and moving ending uniting the whole company and its audience in coming together to defeat bigotry. Quite whether Shakespeare gives us reason to anticipate the community pulling together to deny Mosley’s mob is a moot point. No such gathering appears spontaneously on the Venice quayside behind Shylock.
Perhaps the saddest lesson Cable Street has for us is that its hugely laudable humanity and hope hasn’t lastingly changed the world other than in its moment. One look at the dreadful excesses of populism and scapegoat-whipping which still passes for mainstream politics and social media commentary now proves the pernicious hatred and mistrust which brought down Shylock is as prevalent as ever.
For all its brilliance, Cable Street and the triumph of the ordinary Eastender may have been a blip. Glorious, uplifting and inspirational, but a blip for all that.