The Jew of Malta

Christopher Marlowe
Royal Shakespeare Company
Swan Theatre Stratford

Geoffrey Freshwater (Friar Barnadine), Jasper Britton (Barabas), Matthew Kelly (Friar Jacomo) Credit: Ellie Kurttz
Stephen Pacey (Ferneze) Credit: Ellie Kurttz
Jasper Britton (Barabas) and Catrin Stewart (Abigail) Credit: Ellie Kurttz

Unless he wrote the complete works of Shakespeare, as some have rather outlandishly suggested, the works of Christopher Marlowe are rarely revived nowadays.

Michael Boyd has recently presented a strong but condensed version of Tamburlaine the Great to New Yorkers at Theatre for a New Audience but the last time that The Jew of Malta saw the light of day was some 15 years ago when Iain McDiarmid took the title role at the Almeida under the direction of Michael Grandage.

In the current fashion when it comes to Revenge Tragedy, probably following the style of the original, he played Barabas as a comic figure rather than a tragic one.

For the RSC, Justin Audibert takes the opposite route, asking Jasper Britton to portray the central figure as the text is written.

The Jew of Malta himself is a deeply unsympathetic, treacherous figure, representing evil in an almost undiluted manner.

That inevitable comparator Shylock (created a few years later) has hidden depths, suffering as a result of his response to slights from a society that showed his co-religionists little respect. By way of contrast, after the opening scene, Barabas is a pure despot who seems motivated by a desire for revenge and little else.

The start of the trouble comes when the Christian Governor of the bankrupt country has his debts called in by the Turks and can find no source of finance but the well-to-do Jews.

The richest of all is proud Barabas, a kind of 17th century medallion man who enjoys flashing around his good fortune.

After a kind of 100% tax is levied, the Jew seeks to recover a measure of his wealth and gain revenge.

The problem for a director is that the central character is completely unprincipled. His first action is to ask his daughter, Catrin Stewart highly emotional as Abigail, to masquerade as a nun and steal back secreted valuables.

Once he is back in funds, the bloodbath begins, commencing with two honest young warriors and eventually leading to mass murder at the nunnery, in a brothel, on the battlefield and at home.

Throughout this carnage, the ultimate anti-hero is aided by Lanre Malaolu's Ithamore, a Turkish slave who enjoys his master's patriarchy and gets most of the best laughs during the 2.5-hour running time.

By the end, few survive a plot that goes so far over the top that it would almost certainly be best played as a pitch-black comedy.

This pacy production may go in a different direction but is gorily gripping, helped by some splendid music composed by Jonathan Girling, moving from Klezmer to sacramental with something more martial to add to the mix. In particular, Anna Bolton's singing and Adam Cross on clarinet catch the ear throughout.

There are few chances to see The Jew of Malta and the Swan is a lovely space. Therefore, though it may not be the best play of the period, this production is worth catching as part of a homage to the birthplace of Shakespeare.

It also features that deathless line, "that was in another country and besides the wench is dead".

Reviewer: Philip Fisher

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