Shakespeare and Bollywood come to north London in The Merchant of Vembley

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- Credit: Archant

The Merchant of Venice is transposed to the South Asian community of north west London in a black comedy of forbidden love that examines Islamaphobia, hears Bridget Galton.

Venice is transposed to the unlikely setting of Wembley in a witty Shakespearean re-write that marries Bollywood with Stratford.

Shishir Kurup’s Merchant of Vembley transplants the tensions and prejudices between Christians and Jews to the Hindus and Muslims of London’s South Asian community.

Running at The Cockpit in Gateforth Street, Marylebone, the mordant comedy fuses music, video and verse in a tale of forbidden love that explores how majority groups can marginalise the minority.

When failed Bollywood star Jitendra comes to London to try his luck with a Gujarati heiress, in a bid to win her heart he uses his best friend to borrow money from a Muslim money-lender. When that friend defaults Sharuk claims his pound of flesh ,and Jitendra must face a crucial life-saving test.


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Director Ajay Chowdhury, who has previously relocated Cymbeline from Roman Britain to Raj-era India, tells Bridget Galton he was drawn to the play’s plea for tolerance and willingness to deal with prejudices within the South Asian Community.

BG: After your success with Cymbeline why do you think Shakespeare’s plays are good for exploring the issues you are interested in?

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AC: It’s a cliche but Shakespeare is genuinely universal and can be transposed to different cultures. But it’s really important to consider why the transposition is being made. A lot of time it’s done badly, just to bring an exotic gloss that reveals nothing new about the play. When I thought about making these transpositions it was all about how the play could be illuminated. In Cymbeline it was what it was to live under another culture that is a conquerer. Moving from Britain under the Romans to India under the Raj worked very well and brought the play to more contemporary, relatable life. In Merchant of Vembley Shishir wanted to explore: what would Shylock have done if he had not been stopped by Portia’s ploy - would he actually have taken the flesh? From that starting point he built a play which will resonate strongly in today’s world of Islamophobia and the demonising of the ‘other’ through fear. Setting this in Wembley’s South Asian community he has done this through wit, humour and sadness that brings the play to a new audience.

BG: What did you like about Shishir’s script?

AC: It brilliantly maintains the essence of the Shakespearian story but completely re-imagined to contemporary London, and all in iambic pentameter! I loved its ‘masala’ of references from Bollywood to contemporary pop music to the wonderful use of the language of the streets of West London; Engish, Hindi, Jamiacan, all against a backdrop of money, racism and intolerance. It made me laugh and also question my own ideas. He has subverted the original extremely well - if you know Merchant, a lot of things you expect to happen do not and a lot of things happen that you don’t expect. It’s rare to find a modern play with meaty roles for South Asian actors. The cast is entirely South Asian with the exception of one Afro-Caribbean character. Given the debates on diversity, the timing was particularly good.

BG: Merchant is often seen as a problem play because of the overt racism, how does Shishir translate that to the South Asian community?

AC: This is a real problem with staging the original today. The anti-semitism is very naked and directors have to be careful how it is staged. It is interesting there have been four productions this year, given the global rise in anti-semitism. Shishir has translated it to a post 9/11 world where people feel they have the license to demonise Sharuk as a Muslim because of what they read in the newspapers every day. The play does not give any pat answers and the audiences’ sympathies keep shifting.

BG: There’s also a good old Bollywood story about forbidden love, how will you strike the balance between the belly laughs and serious issues?

AC: It is wonderful how Shakespeare can be very Bollywood - whether it is forbidden love, family secrets, or mistaken identities. The play has all that - it makes you laugh, has songs, dances and colour. However the writing is extremely powerful which makes my job as a director easy because it flows beautifully between humour and seriousness, often switching gear within a few lines. We have a great cast - some experienced actors and some straight out of drama school. Working as an ensemble allows for experimentation and has been taking us in unexpected directions during rehearsals.

Runs at the Cockpit from October 6-25. Further info at thecockpit.org.uk or vembley.com

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