The Merchant of Vembley is a bold social comment, taking key themes from Shakespeare’s original The Merchant of Venice and imposing them on to the backdrop of the Asian community of North London. Writer Shishir Kurup brilliantly infuses comedy and gritty drama to explore a variety of different themes from racism and religion to love and marriage in order to demonstrate how issues that existed in sixteenth century Shakespearian times are still prevalent in the modern world.
The plot follows that of The Merchant of Venice where a merchant defaults on a large loan provided to him by a local money lender. The merchant in this instance becomes a local businessman, Devendra, who is consumed by his obsession for merchandise. He has his fingers in a number of pies and owns a number of businesses that range from an Indian restaurant to a corner shop. However, as his money is tied up in his various businesses he has no readily available cash and so when his friend Jeetendra, a fallen Bollywood star, comes to ask him for a loan, he is unable to provide this to him and has to turn to local Muslim money lender Sharuk (Shylock in The Merchant of Venice). Even though there is a lot of hatred between the Hindu and Muslim community as there was between the Christians and Jews in The Merchant of Venice, Sharuk agrees to lend him the money in exchange for an “ounce of flesh” if he defaults.
The play’s main focus is on the racial prejudices that exist between the Hindu and Muslim communities, even addressing terrorism at points throughout (which a lot of writers tend to shy away from). These prejudices stem from the caste system in India and the power struggle between the two sides, bringing to the surface the stereotypes that each religion has against the other. When Devendra asks Sharuk for money, Sharuk reminds him that in the past he has always called him a “dog” and a “mad fanatic.” However, when Devendra needs money he is willing to take this from the “dog.”
Emilio Doorgasingh and Rohit Gokani are both wholly convincing in their roles as Sharuk and Devendra respectively and the audience’s sympathies constantly flit between the two as you see the daily struggles that each one faces. At the end there is still no clear hero or villain and neither end up with the happy ending that they believe money can give to them. Even though the majority of the play is comedic, the struggle that these two characters face brings an air of thought provoking sadness which stays with you after they leave the stage.
Interwoven with the themes of race and power is the theme of love and how this is affected by these. The first instance is with Noorani, Sharuk’s daughter. She is made to wear a hijab but in a traditional Shakespearian soliloquy, states that “Like Freddie Mercury, I want to break free!” The hijab is supposed to prevent her from being subject to the male gaze but she wants to experience this. In a shocking scene at the end of Act I, she pulls off her hijab and traditional dress to reveal bright pink hair, a short skirt, fishnet tights and a Mickey Mouse t-shirt; the embodiment of Westernisation and runs away with her Afro-Caribbean boyfriend. Her father believes that she is a virgin and he will one day arrange her marriage but this is something that she rebels against.
The theme of love is again explored through the characters of Pushpa and Jeetendra who are obviously destined to be together from the beginning. Pushpa’s father left a test after he died for any potential suitors to pass before they are allowed to marry her; therefore trying to arrange her marriage even after he has died. However, Jeetendra is the only one who passes the test and they get their happily ever after. There remains a question as to what would have happened if he had not passed this test. Would Pushpa have disobeyed her dead father’s wishes and been with him anyway like Noorani with Armando or would she obey him and be confined to a life of misery? There is a lot of natural chemistry between Shamir Dawood and Aria Prasad and it would be unacceptable to the audience if they did not end up together.
The play mirrors the original The Merchant of Venice by being written in iambic pentameter with rhyming couplets at the end of each scene. However, there are points in the play where certain characters stray outside of this as they try to cross the boundaries that they are subjected to and find freedom. This is most notable in the scene with Noorani in the recording studio where she sings outside of iambic pentameter about love and freedom; the two things that her strict Muslim father has forbidden her from experiencing.
The majority of the characters in the play are preoccupied with obtaining money, status or power and as a result of this, do not enact the practices that their religions teach. Kavita emphasises this in her speech to the court room at the end by saying that the Hindu religion teaches the principle of “Tat Tvam Asi” or “I am that.” This principle should transpire across all religions and states that everybody should empathise with each other and this is the ultimate moral that the play tries to portray.
After watching this play, the audience should feel that they are also “that” as feeling is invoked for all of the characters on the stage and their experiences. It makes you realise that you never truly know what somebody else is going through and that human beings should be more thoughtful towards each other as ultimately we are all the same. The references to modern society make it relevant and even though the play does have its moments of sadness, there is a lot of comedy gold thrown in to keep it light-hearted and entertaining. It is truly worth a watch!
Review by Francesca Shinn
Rented Space Theatre Company presents the UK premiere of
MERCHANT OF VEMBLEY by Shishir Kurup
A mordant and modern re-write of Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice transported to the South Asian community of contemporary London.
“He hates me for precisely what I am
A rival businessman not of his faith
I’ll be damned for sure if I forgive that”
In the ethnically diverse suburbs of North West London where, instead of Christians and Jews, Hindus and Muslims are grappling for power and revealing their prejudices, this wickedly funny and inventive iambic pentameter re-write of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice fuses music, blank verse, video and pop-references. The play explores forbidden love in multi-cultural societies and how majority groups marginalise the minority – issues that have existed from time immemorial, and are even more relevant and pertinent in today’s political climate.
The production debuted to critical acclaim as Merchant of Venice in Chicago and was set in Venice Beach, LA – ‘A bracing, ingenious pop-cult revamp.’ Time Out Chicago; ‘A big, new, risky, rumbunctious show’ Chicago Tribune. It wove post 9/11 paranoia and Islamophobia into a tapestry of South Asian themes. Now relocated to a London inured to the daily news’ obsession with “Terror”, it retains the colour, language and context of the original along with its plea for tolerance and transformation. No punches are pulled and with no bows to political correctness, Kurup’s effervescent script fizzes and crackles on the stage – leaving little mercy but delivering plenty of dark belly-laughs.
Fallen Bollywood star Jeetendra comes to London to try his luck with Pushpa, a young Gujarati heiress. In a bid to win her heart (and her late film-director father’s vast fortune – enough to bankroll his return to the silver screen), Jeetendra uses his best friend, Devendra as a conduit to borrow money from Muslim money-lender, Sharuk. When Devender defaults, Sharuk claims a dangling ounce of flesh, a penalty that is just too much to bear. In a suitably Bolly-Shakespearean side plot involving arranged marriage, Pushpa must hope Jeetendra chooses correctly from answers to a film-inspired test willed by her father on his deathbed.
Directed by Ajay Chowdhury
Design by Sean Cavanagh
Lighting Design by Ben Cracknell
Video by Louise Rhoades-Brown
Jarreau Antoine Armando (Lorenzo in Merchant of Venice)
Shamir Dawood Jitendra (Bassanio)
Mikhael DeVille Amithabha (Gratiano)
Emilio Doorgasingh Sharuk (Shylock)
Vijay Doshi Yogananda (Salarino)
Anil Goutam Shivananda (Salanio)
Taj Kandula Kavita (Nerissa)
Ishwar Maharaj Tooranpoi (Lancelot Gobbo)
Aria Prasad Pushpa (Portia)
Ambreen Razia Noorani (Jessica)
The Merchant of Vembley
Tuesday 6th October to Sunday 25th October 2015
The Cockpit Theatre
London NW8 8EH