Life & Culture

Shylock as you've never seen her

Get ready for the Shakespeare character based on outspoken East End boobas, says Tracy-Ann Oberman


The phone rings. It is Tracy-Ann Oberman hurrying somewhere. She asks, “can you be in Marylebone in an hour?”

The actor, writer and campaigner is running a little late for this interview and, by way of explanation, though without at all sounding like a brag, she then says, “I just met the King.”

That is so going in the piece, I tell her.

The occasion was King Charles’s visit to the Community Security Trust (CST).

Oberman is a trustee. However, this was not the first time the actor — who is almost as well known for her activism as her acting — had met the monarch. In 2019, when the King was still a prince, he hosted a Buckingham Palace reception to mark Jewish contributions to British life.

This was just before the general election when the rise of antisemitism associated with Corbyn was at its peak and Oberman was regularly being targeted by antisemites on social media.

When she thanked Charles for his support, he replied that he didn’t want the Jewish community to feel it was alone, she says.

Actors who have an interest in politics are not rare, some might say unfortunately. But few find that their performative and political lives dovetail quite so neatly as they do with Oberman, whose latest project, a version of The Merchant of Venice, is very much linked to her track record of confronting antisemitism.

This has not always been the case, of course. Her television career was launched in earnest as Chrissie Watts in EastEnders in the mid 2000s. Since then, Oberman has repeatedly proved she is as at home in comedies such as Friday Night Dinner as she is in dramas like Channel 4’s It’s A Sin.

On stage she is no less in demand. Oberman was as terrific in director Jamie Lloyd’s stellar-cast Pinter season as she is in the current West End revival of Michael Frayn’s meta farce Noises Off, where she is appearing alongside Felicity Kendal, a role she’ll have to leave to begin rehearsing her Merchant.

On top of all this, she writes radio plays, one of which, The Dinner of 67, starring Kenneth Branagh, was nominated for the 2022 BBC Audio Drama Awards.

But it was when she appeared in the acclaimed BBC series Ridley Road, which focused on the Jewish fight against fascism in 1960s London, that the personal and the political came together with a plot line that chimed with the East End past of Oberman’s family.

Tales of grandmother Annie, great uncle Al and his younger brother Leslie, who charged back into the battle of Cable Street in 1936 after being pushed through a plate glass window by blackshirts, are part of Oberman family lore.

The actor is now sitting in a coffee shop drinking tea, always glamorous (she has the best hair in showbiz, an avalanche of golden curls and waves).

“He likes Jews,” she says of the King. Though she says this not so much with pride as with the battle-hardened air of someone who is used to having to evaluate who is friend and who is foe.

In that sense, the King is a friend. But Oberman has been the target of many a foe who hate her all the more for not being cowed by their threats and insults, and who find yet more reserves of hatred because she is a woman.

There is, explains Oberman, an “intersectionality between misogyny and a dislike of Jewish women”. Coincidentally — or perhaps not — this is very much the conceit of her latest project, a retelling of The Merchant of Venice, which is set in the East End in 1936, like that story about her forebears.

In this version of Shakespeare’s play, which has been “reimagined” by Oberman and Watford Palace’s outgoing director Brigid Larmour, she plays Shylock in what is thought to be the first time a female actor has taken the role in a major production.
Though the title remains (with 1936 added) the merchant Antonio is a Moselyite member of the British aristocracy.

How antisemitism intersects with misogyny is a core conceit of the production.

“You only have to see [what happens] when David Baddiel or David Schneider say something [on Twitter],” continues Oberman. “But when I or Rachel Riley say something, we get the antisemitism [plus] the most unbelievable, misogynistic objectifying nasty stuff in a way they [Baddiel and Schneider] don’t.”

Examples of this “stuff” were included in Jews. In Their Own Words, a response to antisemitism on Britain’s progressive left, co-created by Oberman and Guardian and JC columnist Jonathan Freedland, which opened last year at the Royal Court. Another dovetailing.

Although Oberman was not in the play (other than as a recording as the voice of God), she was represented by an actor, as was her experience of vile, sometimes sexually violent antisemitism. Yet the production was a triumph for Oberman. “Doing Ridley Road meant the world to me and so did Jews. In Their Own Words.

“To hear those voices on that stage, the stage of [such plays accused of antisemitism as] Perdition and Seven Jewish Children was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

Oberman feels similar levels of satisfaction that her Merchant, which was previously kiboshed by Covid, is finally happening.

The show is “honouring a bit of [East End Jewish] history and many of the female members of our family”, she says. Her Shylock, who runs a pawn shop in Cable Street, is “no hero” Oberman insists.

“People seem to think I’m going to make her noble. I won’t. But I think you will understand why she is who she is.”

There is a video trailer for the production, which claims that turning Shylock into a woman “changes everything”. How?

“It makes the antisemitism of Antonio and Graciano and all of those [Christian] characters very acute,” explains Oberman.

“We’ve got used to seeing Shylock as a man.

“But to see those words thrown at a woman, to see that she has been spat on and called a dog, these things take on take on a greater horror with Shylock as a woman.”

Then there is the added authenticity of making this Shylock a woman of the East End, much like her bubba Annie.

“We grew up with these Jewish women as our great-grandmothers and our great aunts. These could carry a cow across their back, walk across fields to haggle with the local businessman and ran their homes — basically hovels — to look like a haven on Shabbat.

“These were tough, tough women who could survive. And when they got to England the very things that made them survivors — talkative, inquisitive loudmouths who wouldn’t back down and were as strong as iron — made them uncomfortable to the English, whose ideal woman was gentle and decorative, things that would probably get you killed in Belorussia.”

Casting one of these women as Shylock is one of the bolder ideas among the many re-gendered versions of Shakespeare that have cropped in recent years. In this Merchant, the changes go beyond the mere fact of Shylock being female. Period and place are important, too.

“It’s a forgotten part of British history. My daughter [Anoushka, who at 13 gave a short TED talk about her mother’s experience at the hands of antisemitic trolls] can tell you quite rightly chapter and verse about everything to do with the civil rights movement in America.
“But for me what happened at the Battle of Cable Street… was a civil-rights moment.”

It will also be interesting to see how the re-gendering of Shylock affects the courtroom scene.

Oberman is excited by the new dynamic.

“Having a Portia (played by Hannah Morrish) as a woman dressed as a man in that court and having another woman as Shylock — that’s an interesting relationship. Two women in a very male-dominated world.

“At the beginning, you think Portia’s an ally and then at the end she goes even further.”
And what about Shylock’s daughter, Jessica? That must be very different relationship now.

“Oh, that was the original idea for me. I wanted to know how it would change the relationship between a single mother and her daughter,” says Oberman, who has always drawn strength — and now material — from the tough matriarchs in her family: the aunt who was called Machine-gun Molly because she was so frightening, and another aunt on her father’s side called Sarah Portugal “who used to wear a slash of red lipstick and smoke a pipe”.

Despite the excitement, Oberman never liked the play.

"It’s a horrible play. I remember reading it at school at 13 out loud and everybody was laughing and walking around school going ‘My ducats, my daughter!’”

Yet none of that has put Oberman off. Unlike Juliet Stevenson, who recently argued that The Merchant of Venice should no longer be staged, Oberman reckons there is place for the play with the right educational programme — something the Royal Shakespeare Company, who helped workshop the production, is helping with hugely.

Yet the impulse to stage the play is more basic for Oberman.

“This is has always been my dream,” she says. “I can’t believe it’s happening.”

‘The Merchant Of Venice’ (1936) is at Watford Palace from February 27 and HOME Manchester from March 15.

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