Learn more about Tracy-Ann Oberman before seeing her in 'The Merchant of Venice 1936'

The Eastenders actress stars as Shylock in this update of Shakespeare's play at London's Criterion Theatre, which runs from 15 February to 23 March.

Marianka Swain
Marianka Swain

A powerful retelling of a divisive Shakespeare play, The Merchant of Venice 1936 is coming to the West End following an acclaimed and much-discussed UK tour. This production moves the action to east London in 1936 and the real-life battles between Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts and anti-fascist protesters.

It’s also a production with urgent resonance for our current times – something that its star, Tracy-Ann Oberman, felt was particularly important. She plays a female version of the Jewish moneylender Shylock, and she has been instrumental in making this production happen. Now London audiences can catch it at the Criterion Theatre.

It’s the latest fascinating choice from this incredibly versatile actress and writer, who has impressed audiences in everything from EastEnders, Doctor Who, and Toast of London on screen to Noises Off and Boeing-Boeing on stage.

Find out all about Tracy-Ann Oberman’s wide-ranging career ahead of her latest venture.

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Tracy-Ann Oberman’s beginnings

In 1966, Tracy-Ann Oberman was born into a Jewish family in Brent, and she grew up in north London. A bright pupil at Heathfield School for Girls, she went on to read Classics at Leeds University, but that wasn’t her real calling. After a year, she transferred to Manchester University to study drama instead.

Oberman then continued her studies at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, as well as training at the Moscow Art Theatre School for a term.

Tracy-Ann Oberman on stage

Oberman joined the Royal Shakespeare Company right after graduating, in 1993, and performed in several productions with them. Those included Tamburlaine,* The Changeling*, The Beggar’s Opera, Macbeth, and A Christmas Carol – an interesting mix that very much set the tone for her subsequent varied career.

In 1995, Oberman returned to her native north London to play Angelica in William Congreve’s Love for Love at the New End Theatre in Hampstead. She then made her West End debut in Joe Orton’s provocative farce Loot, at the Vaudeville Theatre in 1998.

Oberman continued to mix high-profile and Off-West-End venues, starring in School Play at the Soho Theatre, and Hello and Goodbye at Southwark Playhouse, then performing in Waiting for Lefty at the National Theatre, and acting opposite Kenneth Branagh in the UK premiere of David Mamet’s Edmond, also at the National, in 2003.

In 2007 Oberman was back in the West End, performing in Matthew Warchus’s hit revival of the farce Boeing-Boeing. The production was nominated for two Olivier Awards.

Oberman played DH Lawrence’s wife Frieda in On the Rocks at the Hampstead Theatre and another real-life figure, Isabella Blow, in McQueen at the St James Theatre (now The Other Palace). She also performed in Alan Ayckbourn’s Absurd Person Singular at Leicester Curve.

In 2017, she starred in Fiddler on the Roof at Chichester Festival Theatre, and was back in Chichester the following year for Noël Coward’s Present Laughter. She played Camilla in royal romp The Windsors: Endgame in the West End in 2021, and most recently starred as Belinda Blair in Michael Frayn’s peerless farce Noises Off, both on tour and in the West End.

Now she’s back treading the boards again in The Merchant of Venice 1936.

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Tracy-Ann Oberman on screen

Oberman got her TV break in 1997 when she joined the medical soap Casualty. She then wrote for and performed on sketch show Comedy Nation, and guest-starred on series like Kiss Me Kate (not the musical!), The Way It Is, and The Bill – mixing comedy and drama.

From 2000, Oberman appeared on Lenny Henry in Pieces, and she both wrote for and performed on the surreal sketch comedy Big Train from 2002. In 2004, Oberman became a household name when she joined the long-running soap opera EastEnders, playing Chrissie Watts – wife of Dirty Den.

In 2006, Oberman joined another great institution when she landed a role on Doctor Who as Yvonne Hartman, head of the Torchwood Institute.

She continued to guest-star on numerous series, including Doctors, MI High, Waterloo Road, and Robin Hood. She had the recurring role of “Auntie” Val Lewis on the Jewish comedy Friday Night Dinner, from 2011 onwards, and also became an audience favourite as the chain-smoking, adulterous Mrs Purchase in the industry comedy Toast of London.

Most recently, Oberman has appeared in detective series Grantchester, police procedural Code 404, Ricky Gervais’s dark comedy After Life, and Russell T Davies’ extraordinary Aids drama It’s A Sin. She also had a significant role in period drama Ridley Road, about Jewish opposition to fascism in the 1960s.

Oberman has performed in several films as well, beginning with SuperTex in 2003. She appeared in comedy movie The Infidel in 2010, crime thriller Filth in 2013, and historical drama Casanova Variations in 2014.

Tracy-Ann Oberman’s audio and further writing work

Oberman has extensive audio credits too, doing her first of many BBC Radio 4 plays in 1997: Man in the Elephant Mask. Her other projects for the station include Sean Lock: 15 Storeys High, Pat and Margaret, and A Christmas Carol.

Oberman also continued her adventures in the Whoniverse by reprising her role as Yvonne Hartman for Big Finish’s audio Torchwood series, from 2015 onwards.

She has written for radio as well, including for News Review in 1995-6, Comedy Nation in 1997, Harringham Harker in 1998-2000, and Bette and Joan and Baby Jane in 2010.

In 2008, Oberman made her theatrical writing debut with Three Sisters on Hope Street, co-written with Diane Samuels. This update of Chekhov’s Three Sisters moved the action to post-war Liverpool and made the titular siblings Jewish. The show ran at Liverpool’s Everyman Theatre and London’s Hampstead Theatre.

Tracy-Ann Oberman in The Merchant of Venice 1936

Now Oberman tackles one of the most famous Jewish characters in theatre history: Shakespeare’s Shylock. Oberman has based her matriarch on the strong Jewish women in her own family.

Brigid Larmour’s production has been highly praised for Oberman’s striking performance, for its fresh take on the play, and for the parallels drawn with the difficult conflicts in our world today.

Book The Merchant of Venice 1936 tickets on London Theatre.

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Photo credit: Tracy-Ann Oberman in The Merchant of Venice 1936. (Photo courtesy of production)

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