Black Theatre Live


The Merchant of Vembley

The UK premiere of Shishir Kurup’s socially topical and politically provocative Merchant of Vembley opens at the Cockpit Theatre on 6th October. Created by the Rented Space Theatre Company, the show runs until 25th October. 

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 re-write (in iambic pentameter!) 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. 

Debuting to critical acclaim as Merchant on Venice in Chicago (set in Venice Beach, LA - ‘A bracing, ingenious pop-cult revamp.’Time Out Chicago; ‘A big, new, risky, rumbunctious show’ Chicago Tribune) the play 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.

Director, Ajay Chowdhury said“I read the play a few years ago and was immediately bowled over by its ambition, wit and topicality as well as preparedness to deal with some pretty tough issues about the inter-personal relationships and prejudices within the South Asian community. Our last transposition of Shakespeare into India with Cymbeline was a huge hit and I’m very excited about doing the same for Merchant.” (‘Chowdhury’s decision to relocate the perennially perplexing Cymbeline from Roman Britain to the tense potency of India under the British Raj shed new light on what can be a difficult play to interpret.’ What’s On, London).

Writer Shishir Kurup, explains  “I always had a love hate relationship with Merchant of Venice. It is one of Shakespeare’s really flawed yet really beautiful plays yet within the darkness it offers up an interesting look at humanity.  I wanted to deconstruct it and bring it into the modern era, so I pulled out all the language, kept the story line and then used the events – to tell story from modern and very particular point of view.”

A cast of eleven actors is headed by Emilio Doorgasingh as Sharuk (Dara, National Theatre; Eastenders), Aria Prasad as Pushpa (The Great Game, Tricycle) and Ishwar Maharaj as Tooranpoi (Rigoletto, Royal Opera House). The creative team includes Ajay Chowdhury, Director (Cymbeline, Etcetera; Half Way House, Tricycle), Sean Cavanagh, Designer (Tempest, Wyndham’s; Joseph & the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat, New London), Ben Cracknell, Lighting Design (Beautiful Thing, West End; Saturday Night Fever, Theatre Royal) and Louise Rhoades Brown, Video Design (Aida, Royal Albert Hall).