Topical, politically provocative and truly passionate, The Merchant of Vembley uproots Shakespeare’s Venetian tragedy from the City of Masks to a city with mosques, specifically north London and its Hindu and Muslim communities. Jewish Shylock becomes orthodox Muslim Sharuk (Emilio Doorgasingh), swapping a skullcap for a Muslim taqiya, and the Christians of the original become Hindus of varying faithfulness. The result is an exploration of faith and fanaticism, forbidden love and arranged marriages, conflict and tolerance, and love and hate in multicultural Britain.
Pious and modern ways of life clash, Sharuk isolated as much for the strength of his beliefs as the fact that they’re Islamic ones. Somehow writer Shishir Kurup manages to keep loyal to the original play without being limited by it. Shakespeare and Bollywood have long been intertwined, but The Merchant of Vembley goes behind the scenes of the glamorous, big-budget movies. The Portia character Pushpa (Aria Prasad) is reimagined as the daughter of a famous and eccentric Bollywood director. Her Bassanio is “Bolly Prince” Jeetendra (Shamir Dawood) who needs to borrow 200k to fund the new Bollywood film he hopes will win his love. Jeetendra appeals to his dearest friend Devendra (Rohit Gokani) but with his fortune dependent on his business’ finances and a yet-to-be-finalised deal with pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline, Devendra has no choice but to turn to his sworn enemy, Sharuk. Sharuk agrees but instead of interest on the loan, he will demand some of Devendra’s flesh as forfeit – Shakespeare’s “pound” swapped explicitly for some private parts often gestured to in performance. The Jessica character Noorani (Layla Chowdhury) defies her father first by listening to music during prayers then by exchanging her pale pink hijab for a shocking pink punk bob, her modest long black dress for fishnets and a tartan miniskirt, and joining her Jamaican boyfriend to make reggae music.
Lapses into faux-Shakespearean dialogue jar in this otherwise modern and insightful reimagining of ‘The Merchant of Venice’. It’s a slow start; Kurup’s rewrite is at its best when it shows influence rather than imitation and the Merchant of Vembley only hits its stride once it relaxes into modern dialect to express its passion for modern issues.
In many ways, the play’s presentation of Islamophobia is a more nuanced and relevant exploration of racism than the anti-Semitism of the original in today’s society. Sharuk’s ‘If you prick us…’ speech is a really poetic plea for tolerance, a theme which returns in the clever ending with some beautiful lines and vital sentiments from Pushpa’s wise ‘nurse’ Kavita (Taj Kandula).
The message of tolerance is a welcome reiteration of the central theme of Shahid Nadeem’s ‘Dara’, a provocative play about factions in religious practice and belief within a Muslim royal family that was part of the National Theatre’s last season. From tensions in 17th century Mughal India to tensions in modern day North London via Shakespeare and the 79 bus, The Merchant of Vembley contributes something really important to the debate – the lives of some ordinary people living their ordinary lives with the prejudices that are shamefully ordinary. The cast is brilliant, particularly Emilio Doorsgasingh, and, although it feels a little too long, what the play achieves is impressive – especially since (judging by the production photos) it was mostly rehearsed in someone’s front room!