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‘Merchant of Vembley’ – Sending up multi-cultural and religious prejudices…

‘Merchant of Vembley’ – Sending up multi-cultural and religious prejudices…

October 8 2015

Play adapted from William Shakespeare’s controversial ‘The Merchant of Venice’ has 10 South Asians and a Jamaican and is set in multi-cultural contemporary London…

WHAT makes “The Merchant of Vembley” quite unique in many ways is that the play explores relationships between different ethnic and religious groups in London.

That hoary old chestnut or bag of worms – of what Hindus really think about Muslims and vice versa, gets a good workover,
as too does South Asian and Afro-Caribbean (specifically Jamaican) relations in north-west London.

US writer-actor-director Shishir Kurup’s original reworking of his own “Merchant on Venice” now transposed to the People’s ‘Gujarati Republic of Vembley’ is a fun, and stimulating take on cross cultural, religious and ethnic relations in this melting pot of London.

It’s ‘Bollyshakespeare’ director Ajay Chowdhury told in a joint chat with Kurup ahead of the play’s ‘official’ performance for the press on Friday (October 9).

US writer-director-actor Shishir Kurup has adapted his own original 'Merchant on Venice'

“What was really interesting,” explained Chowdhury, who first had his eyes on this play three years ago, “about what Shishir does, is that he completely subverts the original.

“If you know the play, you expect it to go in a certain direction and it doesn’t, it just changes. There are a lot of surprises.”

Not least there is singing, dancing and some larking about and the play’s original tragi-comedy darkness is not lost but tempered or balanced as Chowdhury explained.

“There are some lovely Bollywood songs in this. The set is all coloured and you have this beautiful Holi scene.

“We’re calling it Bollyshakespeare, people will have a great time, it’s very funny, and there is lot of colour and beautiful costumes.

“The biggest challenge was getting the balance right between the fun and the humour and seriousness.

“You go too far in one direction and it becomes fluff, you go too far in the other direction and it becomes too heavy. I think we’ve got the balance right.”

That Kirup has taken licence with Shakespeare’s original is in no doubt, but he has also preserved some elements which make the original play what it is, too.

“The Shakespeare scholars who come will notice all those differences (between his ‘Merchant on Venice‘ and Shakespeare’s ‘Merchant of Venice’) but people who have never read or (seen the play) will just enjoy it.”

Kurup has been interested in Hindu-Muslim relations and community tensions more generally, working as he does in LA, one of the most ethnically and religiously diverse regions on planet earth.

“The original commission was ‘LA Visions/ LA Voices’ and writing about a specific place in LA with diversity.

“It was set in Culver City and there is a long Venice Boulevard – and it has an incredibly dense and diverse population. There are all these placards on shops showing all these different South Asian names and you have doctors and dentists and the shops and there is a mosque, a temple, a Thai restaurant and there was the original building used in the film, ‘Gone with the Wind’”.

It’s where diversity is actually the norm and not in any way unusual, but in between all that, rather than a straightforward solidarity, there is tension and suspicion, especially under the surface.

It is just the sort of fear and distrust felt by the main Christian characters in “Merchant of Venice” towards Shylock, who is now ‘Sharuk’ (Emilio Doorgasingh) in Kurup’s creation.

“Hindu-Muslim relations was what I was raised in,” explained Kurup, who was born in Mumbai and then along with his family moved to Kenya when he was five, before they finally settled in the US when he was 12. His folks are originally from Kerala.

He explained: “In Mombasa, all around you could hear the call of the Muezzin or the bells ringing from the Hindu temple and there was a church on the Mount.

“I went to an Aga Khan school and most of my schoolfriends were Ismailis and Kutchi or Gujarati – that’s the world I came out of and to cast the Jew as a Muslim felt really powerful.

“People can come and watch it and really feel for the Muslim and Jews could come and watch it and really feel for Sharuk.”

In the Kurup ‘Merchant’, fallen Bollywood star Jeetendra (Shamir Dawood) is very keen on Pushpa (Aria Prasad), a young Gujarati heiress.

To help him woo her and her vast fortune (with an eye on a return to the big screen), he enlists the help of Devender. He, in turn, has a little issue with cash flow and so turns to Sharuk for some funds. But not all goes to plan and it is important to stress that Sharuk’s portrayal is more sophisticated and sympathetic than Shakespeare ever was towards Shylock.
And the relationships between the four characters are riven by tension and both subtle and obvious prejudice.

Chowdhury stated: “That’s what attracted me to the play. There is a lot of racism between Hindus and Muslims and it’s getting worse in India, particularly with a right wing government (the Bharatiya Janata Party-BJP)

“What interested me also in the play is that a lot of people feel they have the licence to be racist towards Muslims, and that it is ok because you see what’s happening with ISIS (so called ‘Islamic State in Iraq and Syria’) and it’s ok to say all Muslims are terrible.”

Kurup is unequivocal and wanted to challenge the prejudice some Hindus express without even realising it as such.

“The only people who say anything to me (critical in a religious sense) are some Hindus who say to me: ‘You’re really bashing us up’.

Ajay Chowdhury director jumped at the chance of taking on an imaginative and humour take on Shakespeare's 'Merchant of Venice' transposed to a multi-cultural setting

“I have to speak from experience. This is how we talk about people, some people are very vocal about the way they think about Muslims, even in common little parlance within your family, and I think.. what are you talking about, if you were talking about a black person like that it would be so obvious (it is prejudiced and nasty).”

There is a further depth too – Pushpa is not only prejudiced towards Muslims, she also has other silly thoughts about people who are that not different to her.

Chowdhury spluttered indignantly: “She is very rich, and very well educated and yet there’s this casual racism against everyone – a South Indian suitor is a little dark face, about a Sikh one, she says she is not interested in anyone who wants to keep her hair longer than her.”

Kurup’s “Merchant on Venice” was first performed in 2007 in Chicago by an offshoot of the famous Goodman Theatre in the city. It went down very well and that too among a largely white audience.

The cast has a range of experience – Doorgasingh has featured in “Game of Thrones“, while Chowdhury’s daughter, Layla, a last minute replacement for an actress who had to pull out, is making her professional debut having just won a place at the Central School of Speech and Drama.

“She had to step into the role. She is 18 and there is a scene where she is smooching this guy and the Dad part of me is freaking out, while as the director I’ve got to tell her she has to do it this way, I wasn’t prepared for that,” Chowdhury joked.

It came to Chowdhury – who has directed about a dozen productions under his Rented Space Theatre Company, but also has a career as a tech entrepreneur – via a mutual friend who knew he was looking for something original and different to direct.

“It blew me away. It was very funny, very clever and very touching and often on the same page, you go from laughing your head off to saying…I didn’t see that coming. I just wanted to direct it, ” said Chowdhury.

Listening to both, it’s hard not to feel excited about the prospect of seeing it.

Main picture l-r: Characters Shahruk (Emilio Doorgansingh) and Noorani (Layla Chowdhury); Pushpa (Aria Prasad) and Jeetendra (Shamir Dawood) by Shyamantha Asokan


  • The Merchant of Vembley’ runs until October 25, Cockpit Theatre, Gateforth Street, Maryleborne, London NW8 8EH.

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Written by Asian Culture Vulture


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