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Tracy-Ann Oberman stars in new production of The Merchant of Venice

Tracy-Ann Oberman stars as Shylock in new production of The Merchant of Venice. A radical new production set in the East End at the time of the Battle of Cable Street, which has its 85th anniversary this week.

By William Shakespeare  Directed by Brigid Larmour

Leading actor, writer and ‘accidental activist’ Tracy-Ann Oberman, currently appearing in the major BBC1 drama about British Fascism in the 1960s, Ridley Road, will reinvent the role of Shylock in a major production of The Merchant of Venice. Directed by Brigid Larmour, Artistic Director of Watford Palace Theatre, the production shines a light on an earlier dark chapter in our history, the growth of a British Fascist party in the 1930s, and the East End community coming together to stop them in the Battle of Cable Street on 4 October 1936. Originally slated for 2020, but postponed due to Covid, the production will open in early 2023.

Oberman was inspired to reframe The Merchant of Venice drawing on her own great grandmother’s experience as a single mother in London’s East End. She and her sons – Tracy’s great-uncles – were part of the Battle of Cable Street, a watershed moment of popular resistance to fascism in Britain. The East End stood together to stop Sir Oswald Mosley’s uniformed British Union of Fascists confrontational march through this predominantly Jewish neighbourhood.

This vivid experiential retelling reimagines Shylock as an East End matriarch, a widowed refugee from Russian pogroms. An immigrant, running a small business from a cramped house in Cable Street, she’s working to give her daughter Jessica a better life.

The play’s heroine Portia and her circle are aristocratic Fascists. Their playground is piano bars at the Savoy, bias cut silk gowns, white tie and tails.

Tracy-Ann Oberman said, “I’ve always wanted to reclaim The Merchant and wanted to see how it would change with a female, single mother Shylock. My own great grandma and great aunts were widows, left in the East End to run the businesses and the homes, which they did with an iron fist. When I spoke about it to Brigid, she instantly got it, and said it gave a brilliant way into the problematic aspects of characters like Antonio and Portia – she saw them as aristocratic young Mosleyites, supporters of the British Union of Fascists led by Oswald Mosley. That led us to an East End Cable Street, with pawn shops and money- lending under the counter of shmatter stalls and seamstress jobs, in the weeks leading up to Mosley’s Fascist march against ‘The Jew’ in 1936.”

Brigid Larmour said, “The great Polish critic Jan Kott called Shakespeare ‘our contemporary.’ This fast-moving production brings together Tracy’s powerful stage presence as an actor with her courageous activism, in a story with acute contemporary resonance. Our national sense of pride in the ‘Britain stood alone’ view of 1940 can sometimes makes us forget how much support there was for fascism here in the 30s. It is dangerous to forget.”

Tracy-Ann Oberman is an English television, theatre and radio actress. Having trained at the Central School of Speech and Drama, Oberman spent four years with the Royal Shakespeare Company, before joining the National Theatre. Her extensive theatrical background includes appearing with Kenneth Branagh in David Mamet’s Edmond, a run in the West End revival of Boeing-Boeing and the National Theatre’s production of Earthquakes in London. She can currently be seen in the landmark BBC1 drama Ridley Road, while playing Camilla Parker-Bowles to Harry Enfield’s Prince Charles in the West End production of The Windsors. She performed opposite Amanda Holden in Stepping Out in the West End, and as the lead in Fiddler On The Roof at the Chichester Festival Theatre. Oberman later returned to Chichester Festival Theatre to play a lead in Noel Coward’s Present Laughter. She has also been seen at the Menier Chocolate Factory in Hugh Whitemore’s Pack of Lies, at the Harold Pinter Theatre in Party Time and Celebration as part of the sell-out Jamie Lloyd Pinter at the Pinter season of one-act plays on the tenth anniversary of the Nobel Prize winner’s death, and as the lead in new play Mother of Him at The Park Theatre. For this role she was nominated for Best Actress at The Offies. TV credits include Doctor Who, Mistresses, Toast of London, Code 404, Sandylands, It’s a Sin, Ricky Gervais’ Netflix hit After Life, and the critically acclaimed Friday Night Dinner. Oberman has performed in more than 600 radio plays. Tracy is also a column contributor for The Guardian and was a regular contributor to the Jewish Chronicle and Red Magazine. As a playwright she has written a number of well received Radio 4 plays, including Bette and Joan, Baby Jane and That Dinner of 67.

Brigid Larmour, a widely experienced director, producer and dramaturg, is Artistic Director and Chief Executive of Watford Palace Theatre. A text-based director, she has directed numerous Shakespeares, including a recent all-female Much Ado About Nothing at Watford Palace. Other WPT credits include new plays by Timberlake Wertenbaker (Jefferson’s Garden), Gary Owen (Perfect Match, Mrs Reynolds and the Ruffian, We That Are Left), Neil D’Souza (Coming Up), Charlotte Keatley (Our Father), Marks and Gran (Love Me Do, Von Ribbentrop’s Watch) and Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti (Fourteen), as well as plays by Ronald Harwood and Alan Ayckbourn, and four pantomimes. She has a track record of supporting diverse voices, and casting women in traditionally male roles in Shakespeare. She championed and directed Charlotte Keatley’s game-changing play My Mother Said I Never Should at Contact Theatre, Manchester in the 80s. From 1998- 2006 she was Artistic Director of West End company Act Productions, and adviser to BBC4 Plays.

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