Fresh take on Shakespeare explores antisemitism via 1930s Cable Street

The Merchant of Venice 1936 among four plays to feature at RSC’s reopened Swan theatre this summer

A new take on Shakespeare’s controversial play The Merchant of Venice, set in London’s East End in the 1930s as the threat of fascism looms, will be among four plays to feature at the Royal Shakespeare Company’s reopened Swan theatre this summer.

The Merchant of Venice 1936 is “breathtakingly honest about the antisemitism described in [Shakespeare’s] play, and its new setting in 1930s Cable Street reveals a shameful slice of our history,” said Erica Whyman, the RSC’s acting artistic director.

Tracy-Ann Oberman plays Shylock, a widowed survivor of antisemitic pogroms in Russia, who runs a pawnbroking business in Cable Street, where Oswald Moseley’s British Union of Fascists plans to march. Antonio, the merchant, and Portia are aristocratic Mosleyites.

The original play depicts Shylock as a greedy Jewish money lender who is eventually forced to convert to Christianity. “One would have to be blind, deaf and dumb not to recognise that Shakespeare’s grand, equivocal comedy The Merchant of Venice is nevertheless a profoundly antisemitic work,” wrote the literary critic Harold Bloom in his 1998 book on the bard.

The Merchant of Venice 1936 opens next week at Watford Palace theatre and will tour from March, including a run at the Swan from 21 September.

The RSC is also staging The Empress by Tanika Gupta, which tells the story of a 16-year-old ayah (maid) to an English family over 13 years at the end of the 19th century. Whyman said it was an “extraordinary and beautiful love story, while forensically exposing the blithe injustice of empire”.

The play’s text was recently added to the GCSE drama syllabus, one of four new plays by writers of colour chosen to better reflect the diversity of British playwrights.

Cowbois is described as a “rollicking queer cowboy show” and “a western like you’ve never seen it before”. The play, by Charlie Josephine, is about a bandit whose arrival in a sleepy frontier town “inspires a gender revolution and starts a fire under the petticoat of every one of [its] repressed inhabitants”.

The fourth play at the Swan is Falkland Sound by Brad Birch, about how the invasion of the Falkland Islands by Argentinian forces in 1982 upended the community’s way of life. The play is inspired by real-life testimonies of islanders who lived through the conflict.

Whyman said: “This season is a celebration of the power of theatre and of stories we should have heard or should have listened to, but we haven’t dared. We live in a volatile, fractious world. Shakespeare would have recognised its energy; he too knew a world of accelerating change, inventive and exhilarating, but also furious, divisive, unequal, uneasy.

“The RSC has always believed it essential to support and celebrate the living writers that have their fingers on this unease, who can expose new ways of seeing our history and conjure a brave new world that we don’t yet understand. Now more than ever it takes courage to speak these truths, as new cultural wars roar and mutter.”

The RSC’s Swan theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon will reopen in April after a three-year closure because of Covid and a major refurbishment. The first production is a stage adaptation of Maggie O’Farrell’s novel Hamnet, about the death of Shakespeare’s son from plague.


Harriet Sherwood Arts and culture correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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