Tracy-Ann Oberman: ‘Shakespeare could not avoid the attitude of hatred towards Jews at the time he was writing’

Oberman: ‘There is often a victim behind a villain. That absolutely aligns with my Shylock’  (Joseph Sinclair)
Oberman: ‘There is often a victim behind a villain. That absolutely aligns with my Shylock’ (Joseph Sinclair)

I arrive at the stage door early and ask for Tracy-Ann Oberman. “She won’t be here yet,” says the woman behind the desk. “She’s always one of the last in.”

Sure enough, it is exactly the designated hour when Oberman arrives in big glasses – “they’re new and rather comforting” – and a flurry of warmth, words and energy. Once inside her tiny dressing room, she begins to speak with the urgency of a woman who never has quite enough time on her hands for all she wants to achieve.

She’s in the process of what she calls “double tasking”, simultaneously finishing her run in the classic Michael Frayn farce Noises Off in the West End, while at the same time rehearsing her own radical production of The Merchant of Venice, in which she plays Shylock. “I am a bit of a workaholic,” she confesses, pulling down the dark glasses to look at me.

“However, this has been unlike anything, because I am not just acting in Merchant, it is like my baby, so I am all over all of the decisions. I do think it is the project of my life, the moment where my politics, my family history, my activism and my art has come together in a beautiful moment.”

Her satisfaction is all the greater because it’s just been announced that after opening at the Watford Palace Theatre, The Merchant of Venice 1936 will end up on the stage of the Swan Theatre in Stratford, under the wing of the RSC – which was where Oberman had her first job.

The actor/writer has in fact been trying to get Merchant to the stage since long before the pandemic derailed her plans. That’s why it ultimately ran into the West End performances of Noises Off. But the collision of the two projects sums up Oberman’s career. She has always been an actor who has combined comedy with more serious work, moving effortlessly on TV from a baddie in Doctor Who to Auntie Val in Friday Night Dinner, on stage from a farce such as Boeing Boeing to the darkness of Harold Pinter.

In some ways, playing Shylock returns her to the role that first brought her to wide public attention – as Dirty Den’s wife Chrissie in EastEnders, a classic soap bitch whose humanity twinkled beneath her hard-as-nails exterior. A staggering 14.34 million people watched her kill Den in a fit of rage before she left the show, after 18 months, in 2005. “I love that character. Was she a victim or a villain?” she said. She feels the same as she steps into the shoes of one of Shakespeare’s most complex characters. “Villains are not pure villains,” she tells me. “They are made. There is often a victim behind a villain. That absolutely aligns with my Shylock.”

At school, Oberman always hated The Merchant of Venice, which, although it shows compassion for Shylock, the Jewish money lender brought to ruin by a group of arrogant Christians, also portrays him as a grasping, avaricious figure, distinguished by many stock tropes. “It’s a really difficult play,” she admits. “It’s deeply uncomfortable: either you pity Shylock, or you hate him or you find him a mocked character and I don’t know which is worse. I wanted to reclaim this play. It is important to me that it is understood as antisemitic.”

In rehearsals for ‘The Merchant of Venice 1936’ (Marc Brenner)
In rehearsals for ‘The Merchant of Venice 1936’ (Marc Brenner)

Oberman read interviews with leading actors from the RSC who considered Shylock’s Jewishness a side issue; she discussed the play at length with the writer Howard Jacobson, who, she says, believes the play is not antisemitic, but she disagrees. “I think the legacy of the play has been to breed antisemitism – to give an archetypal trope in literature of the money-grabbing Jew and to continue the blood libel of a Jew who is prepared to take blood and flesh.” These false slurs have been used to justify the persecution of Jews for millennia. “Shakespeare,” Oberman believes, “could not avoid the attitude of hatred towards Jews at the time he was writing.

“It’s not just an acting project for me, it’s a legacy project. I want to make people look again at The Merchant of Venice. I don’t think it’s good enough to take it off the syllabus and not perform it because people are scared of it, and they don’t understand it and teachers don’t really know how to teach it. Quite a few people have told me that they were taught it without any reference to antisemitism.”

A recent production of The Merchant of Venice at The Globe was plastered with trigger warnings about its “antisemitism, anti-Black racism and colourism”. Oberman takes a more robust approach. “The culture wars around Shakespeare, and culture wars in general, don’t interest me. I personally won’t put a trigger warning on this. I think theatre is about being triggered in a safe environment. That’s Plato’s ideal of a group of people in a safe place going through a catharsis of pity, fear and all the terrible emotions you can feel.

I wanted to reclaim this play. It is important to me that it is understood as antisemitic

“That is the point of theatre. It is a shared experience of terrifying emotion in a safe space and at the end, you will come out and think, wow, I’ve just been through an experience. It was traumatic, it was funny, it was frightening, it was boring, it was awful, it was terrifying – but in the real world I don’t have to experience that.”

Her solution to the play’s difficulties is to make Shylock a mother – “I think that unlocks the play” – and then to update the action to 1936, and set it in the East End of London, at the point when Britain’s own wannabe fascist leader Oswald Mosley was leading his blackshirts into attacks on Jewish communities. His activities came to a head in what became known as the battle of Cable Street, the moment when the working-class communities in the area came together with their Jewish neighbours to drive out Mosley’s marchers, and the police who were protecting them. “I hope it will give people an insight into the acute antisemitism in this country and also into the civil rights movement, where all working-class communities came together to stand with their Jewish brethren,” says Oberman.

This semi-forgotten history is personal for her. Her grandmother told her the story of Cable Street that she remembered from her childhood. Her extended family, immigrants fleeing the pogroms in Belarus, had their own stories to tell and their own inspiration to offer. She talks about them as if they are sitting in the room: Sarah Portugal, who had a slash of red lipstick and smoked a pipe, an aunt known as Machine-gun Molly, Aunty Yetta who ran the garments factory where her great-grandmother worked after coming over on a boat from Belarus at the age of 16, and meeting her future husband in the process. He came to find her and marry her a year after they arrived.

“These stories were what I grew up with,” she says. “These women who could strap a cow to their back, walk across a freezing field, barter with their next-door neighbour, deal with the Cossacks and yet turn their hovel into an absolute haven on a Friday night, so it looked like a palace. When these tough, strong, bolshie women came to England they were anathema to the middle classes who wanted their women to be decorative and quiet and to know their place.”

The cast of ‘The Merchant of Venice 1936’ (Marc Brenner)
The cast of ‘The Merchant of Venice 1936’ (Marc Brenner)

This background explains Oberman’s antipathy to the ongoing English obsession with the Mitford family, who produced the novelist Nancy but also her sisters including Diana, who married Mosley at the home of Joseph Goebbels with Hitler as guest, and Unity, who also belonged to Hitler’s inner circle. “It turns my stomach when I see an article on the wonderful Mitford sisters,” she says. “They were a very odd, nasty family.”

All of this feeds into the background of The Merchant of Venice 1936, which Oberman has developed (and shortened) alongside the adaptor and director Brigid Larmour. “By changing it into a woman it does something really interesting in that it opens up the text because when you have Antonio calling Shylock a dog, a cur, it does something. There is misogyny there as well as antisemitism. I have no interest in turning my Shylock into a victim, a pitiable figure. I don’t need to soften her. But by setting it against Mosley’s fascists you understand how nasty the aristocrats are. Hopefully, you will understand why she is who she is.”

If you’re a woman in the entertainment industry and you’ve got past the age of 35, you’re Teflon

There is also, she says, something of the 1930s in what we are living through today. “Austerity, incredible poverty, global insecurity, leaders who border on a certain level of tyranny,” she expands. “It becomes very easy to blame the ‘other’ for taking something away from us. When you ‘other’ people and pit minorities against each other, it takes away the problem from the bigger picture.”

Oberman herself has experienced more than her fair share of misogyny and antisemitism. When she resigned from the Labour Party as Jeremy Corbyn failed to address the rising tide of antisemitism, she was subject to a torrent of online harassment. She pointedly will not name Corbyn as we speak. “I am not saying he was responsible for every vile thing that was said in his name, but I think he needed to come down harder on it and disassociate himself from it.”

She hasn’t rejoined the party under Keir Starmer. “I’m waiting until the next election and then I probably will. The jury’s out. I think [Starmer] is doing pretty well on acknowledging the antisemitism, but let’s see.”

Her own commitment to challenging prejudice wherever she finds it remains undimmed. She was a moving force behind Jews. In Their Own Words, written by Jonathan Freedland, at the Royal Court. The play was seen as a response to the Royal Court’s own antisemitism exhibited when it initially allowed an exploitative, avaricious billionaire character in Al Smith’s Rare Earth Mettle to be given the parodically Jewish name of Herschel Fink. Oberman says that her discussions with Vicky Featherstone, the Court’s artistic director, about a play that put the Jewish point of view had begun long before that. But she accepts it felt like a mea culpa on the part of the theatre.

“When establishments consider themselves to be incredibly progressive, like the Royal Court, and say look we’ve done this incredible unconscious bias training and then they go ahead and create a character who was mean, avaricious, greedy and give him the most Jewish name you’ve ever heard of, and when you have a director and writer who had allegedly been told that the name was very triggering, I think Vicky was deeply disturbed at how that happened on her watch.

“To get Jews. In Their Own Words done, with voices that would never normally be heard on the Royal Court stage, was enough for me. The fact that Vicky was prepared to put it on means hopefully there will be a trickle-down effect to other theatrical institutions that think they are progressive so they can’t possibly be biased.”

As she rattles off stories of confronting prejudice wherever she finds it, Oberman seems indomitable. Does all the online abuse never get to her, I wonder? She laughs, for the first time in a while amid so much intensity. “If you’re a woman in the entertainment industry and you’ve got past the age of 35, you’re Teflon,” she says. “My need to say, ‘Look, this is happening and it’s a tiny microcosm of what goes on out there’, was so overwhelming that it didn’t really touch the sides.

“As much as you can see that was ugly, I was getting so much love both in the industry and beyond. I found myself in conversation with people that I would never have had access to, and I feel I was able to effect some change. Now I am trying to turn that activism and agitation into projects like this.”

‘Merchant of Venice 1936’ is at Watford Palace Theatre (27 February to 11 March), Manchester HOME (15 March to 25 March) and a UK tour later this year (21 September to 14 November)