More security for Tracy-Ann Oberman following death threats

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More security for Tracy-Ann Oberman following death threats

Currently starring as Shylock in the West End, the actor who fights hate has become a target of it

Tracy-Ann Oberman as Shylock
Tracy-Ann Oberman as Shylock

When you put a creative endeavour out into the world you hope that it might tap into a Zeitgeist. But for Tracy Ann Oberman there is a discomfort too – her radical interpretation of Shakespeare’s antisemitic play The Merchant of Venice has come at a time when we seem surrounded by Jew hatred.

Just this weekend there has been a call for more security to protect Tracy and the cast as the actress has received death threats. To be the focus of media attention because of that was not what she wanted for her passion project. Ironically there was an extensive education programme about antisemitism and the Battle of Cable Street before #MOV1936 (Merchant of Venice 1936)opened at the Watford Palace Theatre.

Tracy  who plays a female Shylock living in the East End of 1936, has also spoken in schools and with local leaders, emphasising the fact that the play is about antisemitism, but also the hatred for immigrants which everyone needs to come together to fight.
Directed by Brigid Larmour, this small but powerful production presents Shylock as an immigrant woman and her adversaries as aristocratic 1930s British fascists.

Merchant of Venice 1936 cast

Beginning the year with a second showing at the RSC in Shakespeare’s birthplace, Stratford Upon Avon, it opened at the West End’s Criterion Theatre and was promptly nominated for a best revival WhatsUp Theatre award. But what has moved Tracy most are the many letters she has received from fellow Jews afraid of the rise in antisemitism and non-Jews who gained an understanding of Jew hate by watching the play.

“ I received a letter from a woman whose parents were Holocaust survivors but she had been taught to her to hide her Jewish heritage,” says Tracy. “But seeing the play had emboldened her to embrace it. Leaving the theatre one night I overheard an older English lady telling her friend, ‘I had no idea what antisemitism was before, but I do now’. The other woman said, ‘It must have been very difficult for Jewish people in the 1930s,’ to which her friend replied, ‘I don’t think it’s easy for them now.’ I think people can see this is a project spoken from the heart.”

Tracy Ann with (left Eddie Marsan and (right) Rachel Riley and Elliott Levey

Tracy first started speaking out about antisemitism in the Jeremy Corbyn years. ‘”t did feel like a great risk as people were very pro-Corbyn in my industry. But I think they could see I was speaking with integrity and if they liked me, they would at least listen to what I had to say. I think courage calls to courage everywhere and if you do speak about your truth, it encourages others to think and to open up.”

It was during those Corbyn years that this project was first conceived after a chance meeting at an awards ceremony with Brigid Larmour.
As the director of a theatre frequented by many Jewish patrons, she was already aware of antisemitism and how art could help in the education of that.

“When I was at school I was really interested in history and remember watching the famous series The World at War and learning about the Holocaust,’ she says. ‘As I grew up, I sometimes found myself in circles where people would talk about Jews in an Agatha Christie-type of way – they ‘oh they are not quite the ticket’ and that always used to shock me.”
When Tracy mentioned her idea of a radical change to The Merchant, Brigid was all in, but Covid and the closure of theatres intervened. When it did open it was playing to packed houses around the country. But Post October 7 there was a new reality for Jews.

Director and collaborator Brigid Larmour with Tracy-Ann Oberman

Brigid says she mourned with the Jewish members of her cast even as she also became alert to the modern manifestation of antisemitism.
“I think after October 7 all of us in the company had an insight into what the antisemitism, we explore in the play felt like,’ she says. “We felt the pain and fear of our friends and colleagues and then noticed how little sympathy there was in some quarters. It’s to terrible to think that anyone believes this should turn into a proxy war against British citizens.”
There are hopes that after its West End stint, the play could could even head to the States.

“That would be the dream, wouldn’t it?’ says Tracy. ‘The show has grown and grown.” It has also taken on all sorts of extra cadences because of the Israel/ Hamas war, but the ending that Tracy and Brigit give the show – based on the Battle of Cable Street – means that as much as it is about hatred, it is also about love, togetherness and community.
“It’s a plea for tolerance and for understanding each other better,’ says Tracy. ‘Because once we do that, we can stand together for each other.”
Before having the joy of taking her play stateside, Tracy is previewing another and this time it’s a musical. What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? was the 1961 cult horror film that brought Hollywood’s two greatest rival divas together on screen at a time when both felt unloved by the studios.

The making of that movie was the subject of Tracy’s play for BBC radio and now Bette and Joan and Baby Jane: The Musical has those legendary much missed stars breaking into song in the show the actress has created with Shaun McKenna with music by James Cleeve and lyrics by Nikki Racklin. On Sunday 4 March JW3 is giving a sneak performance preview (4pm and 7.30pm) with Olivier-nominated Sophie-Louise Dann as Bette and Anna Francolini as Joan. “Why did I write the play?” says Tracy, “Because I wanted to understand what was really behind the antagonism between these two very different women: both iconic actresses, both fading from the height of their power, now forced together in an unhappy alliance to make cinema history. To now see my play as a musical only enhances its’ magic for me.” Long may that magic continue.

The Merchant of Venice 1936 is at the Criterion until March 23. Tickets: and Baby Jane

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