Adapted by Brigid Larmour from an idea by Tracy-Ann Oberman
Directed by Brigid Larmour
A Co-production by Watford Palace Theatre and HOME Manchester
This new adaptation of Shakespeare’s “problem play” sees actress and writer, Tracy-Ann Oberman and director Brigid Larmour rework The Merchant of Venice for a female Shylock who is a widow and a mother. This female money lender is based on Annie, the great-grandmother of Oberman and all those strong women who emigrated to Britain after the 1905 progroms in Russia. Tracy-Ann Oberman embraces the discomfort of this role as the beleaguered moneylender demanding her pound of flesh, giving a strong impassioned performance in this still widely debated play that questions Shakespeare and his views on Judaism.
The sound of shattering glass offstage indicates that the brewing antisemitism of Thirties Europe is alive and flourishing in the East End of London.This production is set in 1936 to the backdrop of the rise of Oswald Mosley and his British Union of Fascists party and the resulting riots during The Battle of Cable Street on 4th October 1936 when working class people came together in support of the Jewish community. The deeply divisive aspects of this play are further highlighted by the fact that it was also adopted by the Nazi regime in Germany where the characterisation of Shylock was used to validate antisemitism. After KristallnachtTheMerchantofVenice was performed all across Germany.
Here Larmour and Oberman do not shy away from the complexity of their Shylock but balance it neatly against a background of privilege and arrogance as the Venetian noblemen became rather less noble as entitled Bullingdon Boys in the vein of Boris Johnson, David Cameron and George Osborne caricatures. Their Portia is a cool willowy blonde society heiress equally at home in riding jodhpurs or a bias cut ivory satin evening dress. Clearly modelled on the infamous Diana Mitford, wife of Oswald Mosley who married him at the home of Joseph Goebbels, this is a woman giddy and lethal in her own sense of power.
The set design and costumes by Liz Cooke work together wonderfully well to capture the gritty side of East End London and the sleek sophistication of society life. Everything about this production suggests a real love for the project and great attention to detail. The music of the period blends Yiddish music and classics such as the apt Stormy Weather. The screen images tell a story of the rise of Fascism and quiet poignant moments on stage such as a disparaging glance between Portia and Jessica say more than words ever could about a society where old money and breeding will always sneer at new money.
This is a strong cast with well balanced performances but ultimately it is the women who shine most brightly. As Portia, a pitch perfect Hannah Moorish hands out money and a ring to Brassanio, her new husband and Shylock finances the Merchant Antonio with her bond; it’s notable that these very different women are also moneylenders exacting and expecting their own pound of flesh. Tracy-Ann Oberman relishes a role that celebrates women she clearly feels incredibly proud off. Her call to arms in the closing sequence is a plea that wearebetter together…perhaps the placing of some of the audience on stage is also a powerful unifier. In difficult times we all have to make choices where we stand…if we do not then those choices can be ripped away. The most powerful moment in the production is not Oberman onstage but sitting on the rough wooden step. Momentarily beaten by the bullying elite, she is clutching a tiny brown suitcase just like all those still stacked together as a memorial to all those sent to camps such as Auschwitz.
A Sheffield Theatres and Ramps on the Moon production
Since 2016 Ramps ontheMoon have been partnering with six major venues including New Wolsey Theatre, Sheffield Theatres and Leeds Playhouse and Birmingham Repertory Theatre. Each year, this collaboration produces a large-scale touring production with one of the theatres to showcase the talent of deaf, neuro diverse, disabled and non disabled performers and creatives. Much Ado About Nothing is the fifth such production but the first to experiment with Shakespeare and the first to use British Sign Language BSL and Audio Description AD Directors to further develop fully integrated access both on stage and for the audience.
This year is the turn of Artistic Director RobertHastie of SheffieldTheatres to work with the company. The resulting outcome is a joyous affair that ensures this comedy sparkles and feels fresh and innovative. Most significant about this production is that the work of Hastie, the actors and the creatives have resulted in giving real emotional depth and resonance to the piece. It is a witty and fast paced, irreverent production but it also has beautifully crafted performances that give new depth and interest to some of the best loved familiar characters.
This is a highly intelligent and perceptive production which is beautifully staged. The gleaming set designed by Peter McKintosh is sleek and stylish summerhouse and incorporates captioning in the skylight. In the opening sequence the cast gather for dinner inside the summerhouse and we observe them on stage through the sliding glass panels. In a wry twist, the audience can see the animation and the interactions but from a voyeuristic perspective where many of us can see but cannot hear…when the cast “see” us they burst through introducing their characters and who signs, etc, all using Audio Description. This breaking of the fourth wall sets the scene for a production that feels consistently accessible to all and no strategy used ever feels tokenistic or shoe horned in. The overall feeling is that this theatrical medium actually embraces and enhances the original Shakespeare.
This is a strong cast who work in a very collaborative manner. There is music from multi instrumentalist Kit Kenneth as Balthasar and some lively dance sequences as the cast stage a hoedown in old Messina! Dan Parr exudes easy confidence as Don Pedro as he oversees the machinations of the various love affairs. There are some great duos with Claire Wetherall and Taku Mutero as Hero and Claudio and with Laura Goulden as Margaret who speaks most of Hero’s signed dialogue. The relationship between Beatrice and Benedick is of course central to the richest vein of humour with their rapier sharp exchanges. This is an inspired pairing as Daneka Etchells and Guy Rhys are perfect as Beatrice and Benedick. Both actors bring earthy wit and perfect comic timing, but also real emotional depth that makes their love affair utterly believable and truly potent. When Guy Rhys taps his prostheses as he asks Beatrice which of my bad parts did you first fall in love with, it is such a perfect moment. Etchells’ outrage and raw pain at the unfairness of her cousin’s undoing is hard to watch but incredibly moving.
This is a production with a focus on accessibility, acceptance and raising awareness. It ticks every box and as a bonus enhances this classic comedy. I took my daughter who hates Shakespeare but is learning BSL. We left Leeds Playhouse with a Shakespeare convert… so big thanks to the cast and creatives!!
Director Christopher Haydon delivers a production of Macbeth that is packed full of ideas and creativity. There is a veritable smorgasbord on display that is as colourful and attention grabbing as the infamous banquet where bloody heads compete for space with luridly iced party cakes and doughnuts. Unfortunately although iced delights can tempt us to a quick sugar fix this is a drawn out affair which fails to deliver in a more ultimately satisfying manner.
Lucy Ellinson is a mercurial leader who is believable as a toughened soldier and a popular leader. Sinewy and earthy she appears one of the lads, however as the prophecies of the three weird sisters start to tighten their grip, she becomes increasingly paranoid and driven by bloody ambition. Ellinson soon morphs into a power crazed maniac complete with sunken eyes and bone bleached skull. The performance itself is strong and gripping, however it somehow fails to provide a truly satisfying Macbeth. The physical fragility of a woman who increasingly resembles a crack addict searching for her next fix simply cannot deliver a plausible final battle scene with Macduff. Ultimately there is too much petulance and vulnerability here that could work with Hamlet but not as successfully here with Macbeth.
This is only part of the frustration with this Macbeth which had the opportunity to really shine a light on relationships for ambitious women in power. This lesbian couple seem emotionally ill matched and implausible as this war hardened hero seems incapable of questioning or even noticing Lady Macbeth’s scheming greed and machinations. There is no exploration of their lack of heirs as a gay couple which could have been a really interesting angle to explore in their quest for the crown. The ambitious Lady Macbeth would have surely contemplated a modern ruthless attempt at altering their fate – perhaps spurgling the sperm of Macduff or Banquo?? There is no tenderness between them or any real sharing of the damage their actions cause them personally.
Motorway murder scenes, torrential storms, helicopters, red balloons and chatty interactions with the audience members pepper this production. Designer Oli Townsend has a stark but beautiful heptagram on the stage with a steaming cauldron at its heart. All is as minimalist as a soldier’s rations until the Mad Hatters tea pparty that is the lurid banquet complete with fancy dress and part games. Looking like something from a Ken Russell movie this is OTT in the best way. Dreamlike and drug fueled the game of musical chairs drily reflects our current political situation.
The ever present weird Sisters as drug addled party girls supplementing their incomes as sinister, sulky waitresses at the castle is an entertaining aspect to this Macbeth. They bring both light and dark elements to the production. For such a female heavy cast it is troubling that the real heart of this Macbeth ultimately seems to belong to the men. Banquo and Macduff balance career and family with grace and honour. Actors Theo Ogundipe and Paul Hickey give performances that resonate and truly highlight the tragedy of this piece.