The Merchant of Venice 1936 at Watford Palace Theatre bordered on uncomfortable viewing at times, exactly as it was intended.

EastEnders star Tracy-Ann Oberman's hotly anticipated performance brought a number of stars to Watford Palace Theatre, in Clarendon Road last night, and certainly did not disappoint as it faced the Shakespeare play’s antisemitism head-on.

Portraying Shylock as sympathetic isn’t new but Shylock’s anti-Semitic adversaries’ emerged as members of Oswald Mosely’s British Union of Fascists in the lead up to the Battle of Cable Street.

Watford Observer:

The Merchant of Venice 1936 was directed by Brigid Larmour and written by Tracy-Ann Oberman, who also stars as Shylock.

Oberman was inspired to reframe William Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice by drawing on her own great grandmother's experience as a single mother living in London's East End.

The quality of the performances and overall direction was clear as they influenced the way the audience feels about its characters, without needing to alter the actual words themselves too much.

Projected images and footage from marches contribute to an oppressive atmosphere for Shylock which is suddenly stripped away for scenes of the superbly smug aristocrats Bassanio (Adam Buchanan), Gratiano (Xavier Starr), Lorenzo (Priyank Morjaria), Nerissa (Jessica Dennis), and Portia (Hannah Morrish).

The should-be heroes comedic moments are turned cruel, and they only get harsher and more vicious as the performance goes on, culminating in a tough watch of a trial scene.

Watford Observer:

Antonio (Raymond Coulthard) looks the most firmly fascist and it would be difficult not to root against he and the Duke’s (Alex Zur) self-righteousness in the courtroom.

However, none of the characters, including Grainne Dromgoole’s Jessica or the still-vengeful Shylock come off especially well despite the setting adding a dimension to their motivations.

The comedy and romance aren’t discarded and at times characters who are explicitly fascists, complete with red armbands, got plenty of laughs.

Seeing the classic play done this way left me to wonder if it would be possible to comfortably see an outright villainous Shylock again.

After the performance, Oberman told the Watford Observer she hoped the reimagining had an impact on how the piece is understood in the future.

“Watford has been such an ally in putting this on,” she added.