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Theatre reviews: The Merchant of Venice 1936, King Lear, and Hamnet (various theatres)

01 December 2023

Simon Walsh attends major productions of and about the Bard

Marc Brenner

Tracy-Ann Obermann as Shylock in The Merchant of Venice 1936

Tracy-Ann Obermann as Shylock in The Merchant of Venice 1936

I HAD to cross over Cable Street to get to Wilton’s Music Hall for The Merchant of Venice 1936, currently on national tour, which was fitting, as this HOME Manchester and Watford Palace Theatre production is set during the time of the Battle of Cable Street.

Reimagining Shakespeare’s masterpiece with its themes of commerce and anti-Semitism in the East End of London in the 1930s is brilliantly original and came out of a conversation between Tracy-Ann Oberman, who plays Shylock, and the director, Brigid Larmour. Oberman had strong memories of her working-class East End Jewish matriarch great-grandmother, and saw the potential for this in The Merchant of Venice. Giving the play’s anti-Semitic characters a more political impetus through Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists brings something new to the plot, and speaks to our own fault-lined culture today.

The action begins with a sabbath meal, implying that the audience members are also guests in this Jewish household. At times, during the ensuing scenes, 1930s street footage is projected on to the backdrop. It is immersive and atmospheric.

Raymond Coulthard’s Antonio is a sinister businessman, whose fortune fluctuates with the fate of his ships. Given the thriving docks back then and their proximity to the East End, it is wholly convincing. With his black shirt and tie, he also brings a hint of Krayish menace. Violence simmers under the surface. Gavin Fowler as Bassiano is his apprentice in many thuggish things, but he also brings out the role’s complexity. Hannah Morrish makes for a gorgeous Portia, first appearing in riding clothes. She is like a Mitford girl and expertly inhabits the heiress role.

Oberman’s Shylock is a defining performance. She brings steel and determination, even if the blonde hairdo and accent get a little Ivana Trump at times. The loss of both daughter and jewels hits this Shylock hard. Because she plays Shylock as a woman (and not a trouser role), the intersectionality makes for a double whammy of anti-Semitism and misogyny. Her distinct “otherness” makes serious points that diversity should not mean diminished identity, be that cultural or gender. Later, in the courtroom scene, Portia disguised as the lawyer makes the argument a fascinating legal struggle between two women, presided over by Alex Zur as the hapless Duke. Shylock may be obdurate, but the forced conversion to Christianity feels shocking.

Liz Cooke’s set is wonderfully simple, while her costumes have glamour and Brideshead flair. Rory Beaton’s lighting conjures the grit and intrigue of the location, aided by Greta Zabulyte’s videos and Erran Baron Cohen’s klezmer-rich music. Larmour directs the ensemble with a clear and finely tuned hand. Cuts bring the piece down, allowing the cast a slower pace at times.

The experience was educational. Reproductions of leaflets and posters from the 1930s in the bars and foyer featured fascist propaganda and council warnings about being anywhere near the demonstrations. (Meanwhile, we have cautions over the Israel-Gaza marches and the suggestion to avoid wearing identifiable religious symbols.) Oberman gave a little speech at the end. Wilton’s Music Hall had been used as a field hospital during the Cable Street clash. History is here and now.


ON THE other side of town, Sir Kenneth Branagh takes on another Shakespearean parent with the title role in King Lear. His chosen setting is not recent memory, but the mists of time, and a neolithic context. Stonehenge-like tablets of stone with cuneiform contours surround the circular stage. This is runic, they seem to say.

Johan PerssonKenneth Branagh as King Lear at Wyndham’s

It is back to Geoffrey of Monmouth’s folk history, which sought to present an England between Aeneas and the Roman invasion, which, for Holinshed, was “in the year of the world 3105, at what time Joas reigned in Judah”. So, this is a pre-Christian scene, into which Branagh’s Lear strides as a Norse god — except that he’s not quite a grizzled bear, and, as lion in winter, lacks something in his roar. Cast members wear skins and wield staves that frequently bang the floor (set and costumes by John Bausor).

The text has been slashed to make it two hours straight through. Branagh also directs, and selflessly cuts many of Lear’s lines, too. The result is a genuine ensemble piece for a fiercely talented company of RADA alumni. But few of the characters survive the whittling. Goneril (Deborah Alli), Regan (Melanie-Joyce Bermudez), and Cordelia (Jesicca Revell, also the Fool) have their motives unbalanced. Eleanor de Rohan gives an interesting Kent, but has to run to catch up. Only Jospeh Kloska as Gloucester and Caleb Obediah’s Albany can command full attention.

Without much evidence of his 100 knights, it’s hard to see how Lear is such an unwelcome inconvenience when he arrives to stay. He is an old man in a hurry. We soon arrive at the heath, and as quickly to Dover. The reunion with Gloucester is robbed of pathos, but it does add extra poignancy to the death of Cordelia.

Handsome, brilliant Branagh, with that bronzed baritone, is young for his 61 years. He may have a fine Lear in him yet, with a little more text and time.


THE idea of Shakespeare as a parent, and the parenting that he received himself, was the subject of Maggie O’Farrell’s 2020 novel Hamnet (Book Club, 1 October 2021) and has now been adapted for the stage by Lolita Chakrabarti. Telling the story in chronological order this time, the plot moves from youthful William’s first 1582 meeting with feisty Agnes (how Anne Hathaway was named in her father’s will) to the opening of Hamlet. Tom Varey and Madeleine Mantock play the couple in a moving and affecting portrait of this enigmatic, uneasy relationship.

Family life is at the core. The Shakespeare household, presided over by Peter Wight as father, John, and Liza Sadovy as mother, Mary, is less than happy. Chez Hathaway is not so good, either, thanks to the malevolent stepmother, Joan, a character to whom Sarah Belcher brings bitterness and resentment.

Manuel Harlan © RSCTom Varey as William and Madeleine Mantock as Agnes in Hamnet

The other roles are rounded and relevant: Gabriel Akuwudike and Mhairi Gayer as Caterina are Agnes’s siblings who, with her friend Jude, played with depth by Hannah McPake, form her triumvirate of support when William deserts her for London life. The Shakespeare children are Susanna (Phoebe Campbell) with Alex Jarrett and Ajani Cabey as twins Judith and Hamnet, whose name is the last word before the interval. They all bring vivid energy.

In separate scenes, Will Brown is Burbage, and Wight doubles up as Will Kempe to show the playwright’s acting and rehearsal process away from Stratford. The pull between family and career is difficult. When Judith falls ill with the plague, William makes it back in time, but the consequence is Hamnet’s tragic death. He works through his grief in writing and work.

While the first half is frenetic in places, the second half finds a Chekhovian pulse. Chakrabarti’s script plaits local dialect with Shakespearean verse. Only rarely are hollow notes struck. Would they really have referred to someone in death as having “passed”, and perhaps burial was a more obvious word than “funeral” in context? It’s still compelling theatre, and Pippa Hill’s input as dramaturg is impressive.

With this staging, the RSC has done its namesake proud. Erica Whyman directs fluently and coherently. Prema Mehta’s top-notch lighting and Oguz Kaplangi’s music place us in the dappled glades of Elizabethan England. Tom Piper’s design sees faultless period costumes in an innovative set which transforms from Warwickshire cottages to mansions and a theatre with artful ease. There is much homage to the Bard here, and even more to the theatre as art, craft, and how we make sense of life through the stories we tell.

The Merchant of Venice 1936 is completing a national tour, at HOME, 2 Tony Wilson Place, Manchester, until tomorrow, then the Swan Theatre RSC, Stratford-upon-Avon, 24 January-10 February 2024. merchantofvenice1936.co.uk

King Lear is on at Wyndham’s Theatre, Charing Cross Road, London WC2, until 9 December. Phone 0344 482 5137. kinglearbranagh.com

Hamnet is at the Garrick Theatre, 2 Charing Cross Road, London WC2, until 17 February. Phone 0330 333 4811. rsc.org.uk

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