Tracy Ann Oberman to play Shylock as a Jewish businesswoman resisting 1930s fascists

Ms Oberman has teamed up with Watford Palace Theatre's Brigid Larmour to reframe the Shakespeare classic


The Merchant of Venice, the Shakespeare comedy that invites audiences to giggle at the grossly caricatured moneylender Shylock, is being re-imagined in an anti-fascist and feminist production that will star Tracy Ann Oberman.

Ms Oberman, who is Jewish and is best known for her roles in EastEnders and Friday Night Dinner, will play Shylock as a 1930s Cable Street businesswoman resisting Oswald Mosley’s blackshirts - Shakespeare's aristocrats in the original.

She has teamed up with Watford Palace Theatre's Brigid Larmour to reframe the antisemitic Shakespeare classic. 

Ms Oberman and Ms Larmour's production will be inspired by the story of Ms Oberman’s great-grandmother who lived in Cable Street after arriving in Britain from the Russian Empire as a teenager.

Ms Oberman has been at the forefront of Jewish community's campaign against antisemitism.

“I always hated the Merchant of Venice,” she said at a reception to celebrate the unveiling of the project on Cable Street on Wednedsay.

"I remember finding it particularly uncomfortable at school when everyone was laughing about ‘my ducats’ and doing impressions of Shylock rubbing his hands together”, she remembered. 

However, Ms Oberman said that the problematic texts began to "increasingly resonate" once she began to stand against antisemitism and mysoginistic trolling on social media.

"As an activist over the past few years, I found myself on the front line speaking out against a growing wave of antisemitism.”

Ms Larmour and Ms Oberman are re-interpreting the play, which is set in Venice and revolves around the default of an aristocrat on a loan provided by the Jewish moneylender, from a feminist perspective.

The production will see a cast of nine go on a five-city tour around England between 4 September and 14 November.

Ms Larmour and Ms Oberman have cast Shakespeare's aristocrats - Portia, Antonio and Lorenzo - as supporters of the British Union of Fascists, while Shylock becomes a small businesswoman seeking a better life for her daughter Jessica.

“The stories that I grew up with were of these strong matriarchs who stood on the front line with their daughters and sons,” Ms Oberman recalled, “these were the matriachs who formed how I saw Shylock.”

Ms Oberman says that she was shocked by the misogyny that she received once she began speaking out against antisemitism and that while “our Shylock may not be an online activist, but she knows that the territory of being in a world where people are prejudiced against her – not just because she is Jewish, but also because she is a woman.

“To me, having female actors take these places of power and be in a position where their choices on the stage are driving the play is very interesting,” said Ms Larmour.

Both Ms Oberman and Ms Larmour stressed that their production would seek to “go out and remind this country of its very own civil rights movement” that has been “completely forgotten”.

James Williams, an Associate Director of Watford Palace Theatre, who is directing the educational aspect of the play, says that the theatre plans to use the production as an opportunity to “engage schools with not just the play and Shakespeare but also the message of antisemitism of the current times, and this really key period of history”.

Watford Palace will be encouraging schools to attend and will be guiding students’ understanding of the play.  

Allie Esiri, a writer and Shakespeare anthologist, said she thought that what Ms Oberman and Ms Larmour were seeking to do is “a radical idea. If it brings this unknown period of history – what happened in Cable Street to light.”

“It is an original idea,” she continued, “it will shine a light on issues of antisemitism and Shakespeare is our greatest writer who has so much to say.”

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