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Now Shylock’s an East End matriarch facing down 1930s fascists


The Merchant Of Venice 1936 (Palace Theatre, Watford) Verdict: Historical mis-match ★★★II The Time Machine — A Comedy (New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich, & touring) Verdict: Kills time ★★★II

Shakespear­e’s VenetianJe­wish money lender shylock has been teleported down the centuries and secured a sex change to become a matriarch in London’s east end of the 1930s.

In a radical new production of The Merchant Of Venice in Watford, this is a fascinatin­g and timely reinventio­n of the Bard’s highly contentiou­s, stereotypi­cal Jewish character, played by Tracyann Oberman (recently in Noises Off).

The new setting is certainly thoughtpro­voking and director Brigid Larmour’s adaptation culminates in the 1936 ‘Battle of Cable street’ when Oswald Mosley and his British Union of Fascists attempted to march through the east end’s Jewish quarter. On the day, he was seen off by a coalition of cross-political, trans-religious resistance.

although heavily cut to run at two hours — including a 20-minute interval — Larmour’s adaptation remains very much shakespear­e. historical­ly, shylock’s character has been used to act as a figure for and against anti-semitism. here, though, you hear how some of the Bard’s lines are set up to make him a hate figure after he insists on cutting a pound of flesh from his defaulting debtor, antonio.

The problem with Larmour’s otherwise thoughtful and unsettling production is that she has turned it into a didactic polemic, with the posh merchant antonio wearing a black shirt and Nazi armband. he’s a very one-dimensiona­l baddie, whereas shakespear­e’s full text offers a sharper and more complex presentati­on of shylock’s social eviscerati­on.

Oberman, however, is a very distinctiv­e shylock, performing with enormous pride and dignity in the face of rancid racism. she particular­ly relishes shylock’s contemptuo­us put-downs — investing them with righteous, guttural scorn.

hannah Morrish as the foreign princess, portia, who rescues antonio in a legal fit-up, sprinkles courtroom glitter on the injustice. adam Buchanan as her suitor is a jolly Biggles type, oblivious to his idle boyish prejudice, and raymond Coulthard brings effortless superiorit­y to antonio’s aristocrat­ic, anti-semitic bile.

TOGETHER with images of fascist rallies projected on grey east end tenement walls at the back of the stage, good points are made about racism and the shame of english fascism.

But there is little sense of the widespread resistance to fascism that defeated Mosley. For that, Larmour would have been better off with a play cut loose from all the baggage that comes with old Bill.

Were h.g. Wells to buzz in on his time- travelling Chesterfie­ld armchair, driven by a spinning brolly, he would surely be perplexed by this stage adaptation of his famous novel, The Time Machine. It’s an ultra-lightweigh­t caper in which one of three actors performing his story is accidental­ly killed.

Despite being thwarted by the ‘ timeline protection paradox’ which (we are told) rules that stuff can’t ‘unhappen’, the three actors have to find a way to save him. It’s a flimsy idea filled out with audience participat­ion including eating pizza in a mocked-up trattoria with one volunteer, while another draws the scene on a flip chart. all of which has no more to do with h.g.’s plot than a later Importance Of Being earnest ‘handbag’ hiphop dance routine.

as the Wells character, Dave hearn is the show’s chief purveyor of knowing gags. amy revelle plays the female roles, correcting sexist tropes and singing a Cher song, while Michael Dylan as the dead man walking gets to do a hamlet soliloquy rather well.

all very much on a budget, it’s staged with a green marble Doric folly painted on canvas, together with a roman numeral clock at its centre. It does at least kill time.

 ?? Pictures: MANUEL HARLAN/MARC BRENNER ?? She-lock: Tracy-Ann Oberman in The Merchant Of Venice 1936
Pictures: MANUEL HARLAN/MARC BRENNER She-lock: Tracy-Ann Oberman in The Merchant Of Venice 1936
 ?? ?? Time out: Amy Revelle and Dave Hearn in the H.G. Wells adaptation
Time out: Amy Revelle and Dave Hearn in the H.G. Wells adaptation

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