REVIEW: Watford Palace Theatre in The Merchant Of Venice 1936, at York Theatre Royal until Saturday ***

Tracy-Ann Oberman’s East End pawnbroker and single mother Shylock in The Merchant Of Venice 1936, set in Cable Street, London, with Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts on the march

NOTHING will stop The Merchant Of Venice being a problem play, and that’s the problem. Especially against the backdrop of the hell of the Gaza Strip. Suella Braverman’s P45. The English Defence League on the attack. Peaceful Armistice Day protests in London and beyond, demanding a ceasefire, or was that antisemitism?

Amid this tempest, Jewish actress Tracy-Ann Oberman and director Brigid Larmour’s new adaptation of Shakespeare’s vituperative play arrives in York: a city with the darkest stain of history from the Jewish massacre at the site of Clifford’s Tower on March 16 1190, but with a new chapter opened after this autumn’s arrival of Rabbi Dr Elisheva Salamo as the spiritual leader of the York Liberal Jewish Community.

Is The Merchant Of Venice antisemitic, cursed by Shakespeare’s depiction of moneylender Shylock as English literature’s most archetypal Jewish character? “I think its legacy is antisemitic. So yes, I suppose it is an antisemitic play,” Oberman told the Guardian during rehearsals for this Watford Palace Theatre production in February.

Henry Goodman, who won an Olivier Award for his Shylock in Trevor Nunn’s 1999 National Theatre production, said in the same piece: “I think it depicts antisemitism, but is not antisemitic because it humanises.”

Abigail Graham, Jewish director of The Globe’s “radical” 2022 production, defined the play thus: “It’s not a play about antisemitism,” the Guardian quoted her. “It’s about the intersection between white supremacy, capitalism, patriarchy, antisemitism and racism”.  

Why this preamble? You could make a case for each assessment, but ultimately the argument over whether The Merchant Of Venice is antisemitic will never be decided by any one production.

Ultimately, Graham has it right in referring to the intersection, one that now defines British or, more to the point, English discomfort at our colonial past and its continuing impact.

Let’s call The Merchant Of Venice an “uncomfortable” play, one where Shakespeare has Portia destroy Shylock in court, for the moneylender to slink away never to be heard again, only for a jocund ending to follow with fun and games over wedding rings as if we had strayed into one of his summer-lit comedies.

Unlike Shylock, Oberman and Larmour are not content to let it end there, instead adding a coda to round off the 1936 setting amid the rising tide of Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascist Blackshirts, on the march through Cable Street in London’s East End on October 4 that year.

All Larmour’s cast strip off glad rags and fascist appareil to stand with Oberman’s Shylock, behind her banner They Shall Not Pass “We are stronger, prouder and safer together,” is her message, as she urges all the audience to its feet. (Well, that’s one way to ensure a standing ovation as sems to be becoming increasingly obligatory at theatre shows.)

Not everyone obliged, perhaps uneasy that the problems highlighted by this problematic play are more complicated, more nuanced, than that.

Shakespeare’s play has “always fascinated and repulsed” Oberman. “I don’t like it. I’ve never liked it,” she said. Does anyone “like it”, however? It is not Hamlet, nor King Lear, more questions than answers, but she wanted to “reclaim Shylock”, not to play Shylock for sympathy, nor shy away from the villainy, but to show why Shylock “becomes the monster that they make her” in the face of Jewish persecution.

Traditionally a male role, Oberman has taken inspiration from her great-grandmother’s hardy, dignified East London generation to depict Shylock as a Cable Street pawnbroker and single mother with an errant daughter (Grainne Dromgoole’s Jessica), played as righteous, resolute, rigorous and wronged.

This adds gender and misogyny to the degradation of the spat-upon Shylock at the hands of Raymond Coulthard’s sneering Antonio, dressed all in Mosley black, as he mocks her demand for her pound of flesh on failing to meet the terms of his bond.

Liz Cooke’s design depicts Shylock’s Cable Street home in drab, brutalist grey brick. By contrast, Portia’s film-noir high society elegance is denoted by a marble floor, a white curtain and silk dresses; Antonio’s business world by a chandelier.

Greta Zabulyte’s matching black and white video design begins with Mosley mid-speech, to be followed by fascist posters, newspaper headlines and period footage, all leading up to the Battle of Cable Street. Sarah Weltman’s sound design of smashed windows and loud, threatening voices and Erran Baron Cohen’s piano compositions shadow what is unfolding with haunting inevitability. The Star of David is highlighted on the wall, but Jew Dog is scrawled on Shylock’s door.

As mentioned earlier, one problem in The Merchant Of Venice is the contrasting tones: the chortling comedy of Portia’s hapless suitors seeking to win  her hand, topped off by Gavin Fowler’s outwardly charming Bossanio, as if in a Noel Coward or Oscar Wilde comedy of manners, but the visceral, shocking hatred of Shylock, as exemplified by the thuggish excesses of Xavier Starr’s Gratiano. You can but choke on the comedy.

The transition of York-born Hannah Morrish’s Portia – my other character is a Portia too – typifies this dichotomy. Aloof but irresistibly attractive society belle, all-hours socialite, scheming aristocrat, as if she were the seventh Mitford sister, but then she becomes, as Oberman has indelicately put it, an effing bitch in her chilling courtroom humbling of Shylock.

This is a high-quality production, from design to vocal delivery, if fast-moving rather than moving, with well edited dialogue and a modernity to its theatricality and tone.

Does Obeman “reclaim Shylock” in what she calls her legacy heritage project? The play, the central character, Shakespeare’s motives, will still divide opinion, and new horrors will always inform them, but what Oberman and Larmour highlight is how unlikeable everyone is in The Merchant Of Venice. Until that unifying coda, but when will such a coda head over the horizon? Not any time soon.

Watford Palace Theatre in The Merchant Of Venice 1936, York Theatre Royal, until Saturday, 7.30pm nightly plus Box office: 01904 623568 or


More Things To Do in York & beyond from Nov 11. Hutch’s List No. 46, from The Press

Tracy-Ann Oberman’s Cable Street pawnbroker and single mother Shylock in the 1936 East End with fascism on the rise. Picture: Mark Senior

POLITICAL dramas, a heap of big comedy names, a newly revived Eighties’ band and a belated American debut will keep Charles Hutchinson out and about.

Controversial play of the week: The Merchant Of Venice 1936, York Theatre Royal, Tuesday to Saturday, 7.30pm, plus 2pm Thursday and 2.30pm Saturday matinees

WATFORD Palace Theatre’s ground-breaking touring production of Shakespeare’s The Merchant Of Venice has been adapted and directed by Brigid Larmour from an original idea by co-creator and actress Tracy-Ann Oberman.

As the tide of fascism swells in 1936, Oberman’s Shylock is a strong-willed single mother who runs a pawnbroking business from her house in Cable Street, where Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts will soon march. Box office: 01904 623568 or

Ross Noble: Geordie surrealist in his natural habitat in Jibber Jabber Jamboree at Grand Opera House, York

Comedy at the treble at Grand Opera House, York: Dave Gorman, Monday, 7.30pm; Ross Noble, Wednesday, 8pm; Paul Smith, 7.30pm

DAVE Gorman’s Powerpoint To The People show aims to demonstrate that a powerpoint presentation need not involve a man in a grey suit standing behind a lectern and saying “next slide please”. Far more important things demand analysis, he urges.

Geordie surrealist Ross Noble returns to York on his 21st tour, Jibber Jabber Jamboree, for another journey into inspired, improvised nonsensical comedy with detours galore. Paul Smith’s Joker gig, full of audience interaction and everyday true stories, has sold out. Box office:

Fame Hasn’t Changed Me, by Susan Bower, from Kentmere House Gallery’s winter exhibition

Exhibition launch of the week: Not Black Friday But Colour Friday!, Kentmere House Gallery, Scarcroft Hill, York, until December 22

ORIGINAL art by more than 70 artists features in the Christmas exhibition at Kentmere House Gallery. “Among them is Jonathan Hooper, a Leeds painter deservedly becoming recognised, winning awards and now showing in London and at the Millenium Gallery in Sheffield,” says gallery owner and curator Ann Petherick.

“Then there’s Susan Bower, a Marmite painter – most love her, a few don’t! Look out for Andrew Morris’s delightful view of Knaresborough’s marketplace. We have new work arriving all the time.” Open any day, 11am to 5pm; ring 01904 656507 or 07801 810825 or take pot luck. 

Kirkgate, Leeds, by Jonathan Hooper, from Kentmere House Gallery’s winter show

Tribute show of the week: The Chicago Blues Brothers, Cruisin’ For A Bluesin’ Tour, Grand Opera House, York, November 12, 7.30pm

JOIN Jake and Elwood, The Sweet Soul Sisters and the amazing CBB Band for a hand-clapping, foot-stomping, hard-hitting night of soul, rhythm & blues, country and Motown. Expect exuberant spirit, irresistible energy and even a few surprises. Box office:

Raqhael Harte as Sophie Goodman, Mick Liversidge as Phil Goodman and Ian Giles as Ratko Ilich in Lumar Productions’ premiere of Sea Stones. Picture: Chris Mackins

Premiere of the week: Lumar Productions in Sea Stones, Theatre@41, Monkgate, York, Tuesday to Saturday, 7.30pm plus 2.30pm Saturday matinee

AFTER eight novels and a regular column in The York Press, Tim Murgatroyd has written his debut play, an emotional, suspenseful night of the soul when four people are brought together in a lonely house by the sea.

Two fathers. Two daughters. Each confronted with the consequences of the past as a high tide is turning and tests to their relationships are escalating. Tests that might cost them not only their dearest hopes and loves, but their very lives. “The truth can set you free. Or drown you,” says Murgatroyd. Box office:

Phil Grainger, left, and Alexander Flanagan Wright: Performing Orpheus at Rise@Bluebird Bakery, Acomb

Double act of the week: Wright & Grainger in Orpheus, Rise@Bluebird Bakery, Acomb, York, Wednesday, 7pm to 9pm

ALEXANDER Flanagan Wright and Phil Grainger’s Greek myth adaptation in spoken word and song heads to Rise after Adelaide Fringe award-winning success in Australia and at the Edinburgh Fringe, as well as back home at Stillington Mill.

Dave is turning 30. Eurydice is a tree nymph. Bruce Springsteen is on the karaoke. Cue a tale of dive bars, side streets, ancient gods and how far you would go for love. Box office:

Long time coming: Ben Folds will stride into the Grand Opera House for his overdue York debut on Thusday

Gig of the week: Ben Folds, What Matters Most Tour, Grand Opera House, York, Thursday, 7.30pm

AT 57, North Carolina pianist, songwriter, author and podcast host Ben Folds plays his debut York show in support of What Matters Most, his first studio album since 2015.

At the only Yorkshire gig of his nine-date British and Irish tour, Folds will be combining his new material with songs from his 35-year career. Guitarist and singer Lau Noah, from Catalonia via New York, is the support act. Box office:

Snake Davis: Sax to the max at Pocklington Arts Centre

Jazz gig of the week: Snake Davis & Friends, Pocklington Arts Centre, Thursday, 8pm

JAZZ At PAC presents Snake Davis, saxophonist to the stars, from Paul McCartney, James Brown, Tina Turner and Eurythmics to Take That, Amy Winehouse, M-People and Lisa Stansfield.

First making his mark in York band Zoot & The Roots, Davis plays not only the saxophone family, but  flutes, whistles and an ancient Japanese wind instrument, the Shakuhachi, too. Box office: 01759 301547 or

Haircut 100: Wearing their favourite shirts at York Barbican on Friday

Fantastic day to see: Haircut 100, York Barbican, Friday, 8pm

NICK Heyward’s short-lived Brit-funk band Haircut 100 are back together after more than 40 years, following up May’s Pelican West 40th anniversary shows in London and Oxford with the 15-date Haircut 100% Live tour that ends in York, their only Yorkshire location.

“We are coming back with a tour to beat all tours this autumn,” says Beckenham-born Heyward, now 62. “All the hits that you love [Favourite Shirts (Boys And Girls), Love Plus One, Fantastic Day et al] and new tracks that we are bursting to share with you.” The support act will be Brighton band of brothers Barbara. Box office:

The tour poster for Only Fools And Horses The Musical, bound for York next year

Lovely jubbly look-ahead: Only Fools And Horses The Musical, Grand Opera House, York, November 5 to 9 2024

DIRECT from a four-year sold-out West End run, Only Fools And Horses The Musical is heading to York in Paul Whitehouse and Jim Sullivan’s show, based on John Sullivan’s record-breaking 1980s’ BBC comedy.

Directed by Caroline Jay Ranger, it features a script and original score by John’s son and Whitehouse, bringing Peckham rogues Del Boy, Rodney, Grandad, Cassandra, Raquel, Boycie, Marlene, Trigger, Denzil, Mickey Pearce, Mike the Barman and the Driscoll Brothers to the stage with wide-boy humour and 20 songs. Bonnet de douche! Box office:

Sarah Millican: Fully booked run at York Barbican

Recommended but sold out already

THREE nights, three sell-outs for South Shields humorist Sarah Millican at York Barbican from November 14 to 16 on her Late Bloomer tour, where she discusses Sarah then and now, dinners and lady gardens at 8pm nightly. Come along, laugh at her, with her, beside her, reads the invitation.  

Zeus: Once the ancient Greek god of the sky, lightning, thunder, law and order; now a champion dog with a lead role in York Theatre Royal’s pantomime Jack And The Beanstalk

In Focus: Best dog in show: Zeus the collie collars role in Jack And The Beanstalk

YOUNG Kennel Club Crufts trophy winner Zeus has won a lead role in this winter’s pantomime at York Theatre Royal.

The six-year-old Border Collie, from York, will make his stage debut alongside EastEnders star Nina Wadia, returnee panto dame Robin Simpson and CBBC’s Raven star James Mackenzie in Jack And The Beanstalk from December 8 to January 7 2024.

A theatre spokesperson says: “Zeus’s amazing audition gave us all paws for thought. He’s a natural stage performer whose dogged determination to win the role was a real tail-wagging moment.”

Already Zeus is a winner on the canine stage with three Young Kennel Club Crufts trophies to his credit. Those closest to him say he is very agile and loves to play but has an “off switch”and likes to wind down too.

Pantomime director Juliet Forster was delighted to hear that Zeus is “very eager to please, playful and up for learning” as she will be training him for his acting debut.

Zeus loves cream cheese, squeezy cheese too, and sometimes has carrots for breakfast. He eats at the table and even has his own chair. His favourite toys are balls and he has a collection of soft toys.

Zeus enjoys rounding up horses but not, as you might expect from a Border Collie, rounding up sheep. He is, however, best friends with two sheep, Maisie Midnight Fluffington and Wallace.

Pull the udder one: Anna Soden goes solo as Dave the Cow in Jack And The Beanstalk

He is yet to meet cows but will have his first close encounter with the bovine world in the rehearsal room as one of his co-stars will be Dave the Cow.

Dave is a rare breed of pantomime cow. “You’d almost think Dave is human,” says York actor and musician Anna Soden, who will inhabit the role on her own, rather than the usual two people squeezed uncomfortably into a cow costume.

Writer Paul Hendy, director of York Theatre Royal’s producing partner Evolution Productions, says: “In 19 years of writing and producing pantomimes, we’ve never had a human cow before. We wanted to do something different and director Juliet Forster was very open to that. It makes more opportunities in the show for the cow. It’s a much bigger part than usual. Dave is very much one of the gang.

“Our company is called Evolution for a reason: we are constantly evolving. One of the reasons pantomime has survived for 150 years or more is that it changes. There has to be a formula but within that you have to be original.”

Evolution is producing three Jack And The Beanstalk pantomimes around the country this winter. York has Dave; the shows at The Grove, Dunstable (starring EastEnders’ Steve McFadden, by the way), and Theatre Severn, Shrewsbury, will have a more traditional cow.

Meanwhile, the Theatre Royal’s legendary pantomime cow Patrica is heading for pastures new this Christmas with a role in Bridlington Spa Theatre’s pantomime, Beauty And The Beast.

Patricia’s career has taken in television appearances in The Crystal Maze with pantomime stalwart Christopher Biggins and Bargain Hunt, as well as starring in her own series of moo-vies on You Tube.

York Theatre Royal presents Jack And The Beanstalk, December 8 to January 7 2024. Box office: 01904 623568 or

EastEnders star Tracy-Ann Oberman plays Shylock in Fascist East End version of The Merchant Of Venice at York Theatre Royal

Tracy-Ann Oberman’s Shylock in The Merchant Of Venice 1936, on tour at York Theatre Royal . Picture: Mark Senior

EASTENDERS, Doctor Who and Friday Night Dinner star Tracy-Ann Oberman will play Shylock in a ground-breaking version of Shakespeare’s The Merchant Of Venice on tour at York Theatre Royal from November 14 to 18.

Developed in association with HOME Manchester and with support from the Royal Shakespeare Company, The Merchant Of Venice 1936 has been adapted and directed by Brigid Larmour from an idea by co-creator Oberman.

Their thought-provoking and timely reimagining relocates the action to an electrifying new setting: London in 1936. 

“It has a been a lifelong dream of mine to bring this play to the stage in a new way, reimagining Shylock as one of the tough, no-nonsense Jewish matriarchs I grew up around in Brent,” says London-born actress, playwright and narrator Oberman, 57, as she “takes this important, sharp, sexy and heartfelt production around the country”.

“I’m delighted this project is finally happening and look forward to sparking debate and enlightening people about a pivotal but largely forgotten part of British history – just how close the establishment were to Oswald Mosley and his British Union of Fascists.”

In Watford Palace Theatre’s touring production, the capital city is on the brink of political unrest, fascism is sweeping across Europe and Mosley’s fascists are threatening a paramilitary march through the Jewish East End. Strong-willed single mother Shylock, Shakespeare’s anti-hero, runs a pawnbroking business from her house in Cable Street, where Mosley will march.

The poster for Watford Palace Theatre’s touring production of The Merchant Of Venice, starring Tracy-Ann Oberman as Shylock

When charismatic, anti-Semitic aristocrat Antonio comes to her for a loan, a high-stakes deal is struck. Will Shylock take her revenge? Who will pay the ultimate price?

“The women in my family were as tough as nails,” says Tracy-Ann, recalling her great-grandmother and aunts, women with nicknames such as Machine-Gun Molly and Sarah Portugal, who arrived in London from anti-Semitic eastern Europe at the turn of the last century to build a life and make a living against the odds.

Oberman’s family history helped her to unlock Shakespeare’s most controversial play. Her relatives survived the Battle of Cable Street in London’s East End in 1936, when the Jewish community was targeted by Mosley’s Blackshirts, only to be confounded when the non-Jewish community stood by their Jewish neighbours.

In The Merchant Of Venice 1936, Oswald Mosley inspires Antonio (Raymond Coulthard), the sneering merchant who takes a loan from Shylock, while heiress Portia (Hannah Morrish) becomes “a beautiful glacial Mitford type – awful”, whose “quality of mercy” courtroom speech bears the mark of hypocrisy, not humanity.  

Oberman’s single mother Shylock is fiercely committed, both to her independence and to her daughter. “I have one daughter,” she says. “It’s an intense relationship!”

The Merchant Of Venice had always fascinated and repulsed her, and this production duly sat in her head for years as she researched, planned and waited for lockdowns to pass.

Tracy-Ann Oberman’s Shylock: “A woman backed into a corner by all these men, with the palpable hatred and misogyny”. Picture: Mark Senior

Now that her female Shylock has come face to face with audiences at last, she says: “The thing that surprised me most was the court case. 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 does not soften the character, emphasises Oberman. “I didn’t want to make her a victim or change her role in the story,” she says, before adding: “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 anti-Semitism.

“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 play speaks as much to the present as of the past. “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,” says Tracy-Ann.

“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.”

“We’re better together, we’re stronger together, especially at times of huge financial and political insecurity,” says Tracy-Ann Oberman as she tours the country in The Merchant Of Venice 1936. Picture: Mark Senior

Oberman dreams of the Battle of Cable Street being taught as part of the British civil rights movement. “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,” she says,

“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.”

Oberman acknowledges how personal this project is to her but audience reactions testify to common ground. “What has been very moving is how many people want to stay and talk at the end,” she says.

“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 play 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 anti-Semitic? Was Shakespeare? Lots of really interesting conversations.”

One factor behind Oberman’s wish to stage The Merchant of Venice 1936 was teachers telling her of their anxiety over discussing this contentious play in their classrooms. This has led to the touring production being accompanied by educational work, mounted in tandem with the activist group Stand Up To Racism.

“At a time when we are looking at Britain’s involvement in colonialism and the slave trade, we also have to look at Britain’s flirtation with fascim,” says Tracy-Ann Oberman

The education team has not only visited schools and prepared a pack to support teachers, but “we’ve also created an online world which people can look at before or after seeing the play,” says Tracy-Ann. “It’s an incredible resource talking about the play, the 1930s, the history of anti-Semitism and racism, Oswald Mosley, everything you could want.”

After a diverse career on stage, taking in the RSC and National Theatre, iconic soap status as Dirty Den’s nemesis, Chrissie Watts, in EastEnders and TV comedy roles as Auntie Val in Friday Night Dinner and Mrs Purchase in Toast Of London, Oberman stands centre stage as the distaff Shylock.

“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,” she says. “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’s lived up to all my expectations.”

Audience tears and standing ovations have greeted The Merchant Of Venice 1936. “While they might not have liked my Shylock, they certainly understood why she wants that ‘pound of flesh’,” says Tracy-Ann.

“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.”

The Merchant Of Venice 1936, York Theatre Royal, November 14 to 18; 7.30pm; 2pm, Thursday, 2.30pm, Saturday. Box office: 01904 623568 or at

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