Five questions with Tracy-Ann Oberman of 'The Merchant of Venice 1936'

EastEnders and Friday Night Dinner actor Tracy-Ann Oberman explains why now is the time for audiences to see this adaptation of Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice.

Suzy Evans
Suzy Evans

Best known for her starring roles on TV, Tracy-Ann Oberman has returned to the West End in The Merchant of Venice 1936, breaking new barriers with her female interpretation of Shylock. She speaks to London Theatre Magazine about why the role means so much to her.

Book The Merchant of Venice 1936 tickets on London Theatre.

Book Tickets CTA - LT/NYTG

Shylock is such an iconic Shakespearean role, and you’re the first British woman to play the part. What does it mean to you to be taking on this role?

Taking on the role of Shylock means everything to me. It is the part and project of my life. I have based it on my great grandmother Annie, who came to England aged 15 all on her own as an immigrant running away from the pogroms in Belarus. She ended up a widow in the East End of London, tough and strong, bringing up her family all on her own in extreme poverty, but making the best of it and then came face-to-face with Oswald Mosley at the Battle of Cable Street.

How do you think this play’s story benefits from having a woman in the role?

Having a female Shylock has unlocked the play enormously. It is a play I have never liked. It is a conflicting play for audiences, but especially for Jewish audiences. In this version, we put a woman up front and centre, a believable Jewish woman who is up against such misogyny and anti-Jewish hatred, and yet fighting to keep herself and her daughter safe, alive, and well. And then when all of this is ripped away from her and she faces an entire court thinking that she has justice on her side with a legal document to prove it, she then is systematically destroyed by church, state and establishment. Audiences really gasp when they see a woman in this predicament.

This production also sets the show in 1930s Britain. How do you think the social message of the piece applies to today?

I wanted to reclaim a piece of history that people seem to have forgotten: The Battle of Cable Street and the UK’s flirtation with fascism, especially in the 1930s with Oswald Mosley and the British Union of Fascists. Mosley was close friends with Hitler. When he embarked on his march against the Jewish entity at Cable Street on 4th October 1936, he fully expected all of the local working-class communities to join him, but instead ordinary heroes from all around the country came to fight the fascists and join the Jews, saying “if you come for the Jewish community, you come for us” and their slogan was “they shall not pass”.

What do you think this new version has to say to audiences?

The message of my version of The Merchant of Venice is that we are better together, stronger together, and prouder together. The times we are living in are trying to pit minorities against each other, but we have to stand together to fight against a greater evil.

Many audience members will know your work from TV and film. What keeps you coming back to the theatre and what do you hope those audiences take from the show?

I will always love working in television and film and radio. But the theatre is genuinely my absolute first love. I love telling stories – particularly in this production, which is very much my idea and based on my family background. It’s a collaboration; the live experience, the connection with the audience and, most importantly, being in charge of your own edit every night.

Book The Merchant of Venice 1936 tickets on London Theatre.

Book Tickets CTA - LT/NYTG

This article first appeared in the March issue of London Theatre Magazine.

Photo credit: Tracy-Ann Oberman in The Merchant of Venice. (Photo courtesy of production)

Originally published on

Subscribe to our newsletter to unlock exclusive London theatre updates!

Special offers, reviews and release dates for the best shows in town.

You can unsubscribe at any time. Privacy Policy