Writer: Christopher Marlowe
Director: Justin Audibert
Reviewer: James Garrington
Some 15 years before Shakespeare introduced The Merchant of Veniceto the world, Christopher Marlowe was busy penning his own play, The Jew of Malta – and what a delight it is, too. It is being presented here as part of an RSC season which explores the “outsider”, and shows, as is so often the case, the great influence that people on the fringes can have on the establishment.
This is a revenge tragedy – though it is a tragedy in the lightest possible sense. It is actually very funny, and at times it almost comes across as a farce, with some laugh-out-loud moments. The island of Malta is being threatened by the Turks, and the Governor attempts to buy them off, collecting money from the Jewish population to pay them. When Barabas complains, the Governor confiscates his entire fortune, setting Barabas off on a trail of hatred and revenge.
Jasper Britton’s Barabas is far from the typical villain. The combination of script and clever characterisation has left him as quite an attractive character, and it is easy to understand his motives – at first at least – as he plots to wreak his revenge on those who have hurt him. As portrayed here, Barabas actually comes across as an almost sympathetic character, and Britton plays him with a lively twinkle in his eye. His scenes with his slave Ithamore (beautifully played by Lanre Malaolu) are at times a real pleasure, as they gleefully plot their next revenge. Malaolu has a wonderful light spring in his step as he almost jumps for joy during the scheming, drawing the audience in so you can’t help hoping that the plot will succeed, such is the joy they both bring to the planning.
Underneath all of this there is a message that Marlowe is trying to get across though – this is, on the face of it, an extremely anti-Jewish play. Barabas, despite his sympathetic qualities, is portrayed as scheming, untrustworthy, and money-grabbing – and that is for no other reason than because he is a Jew. Having said that, one of the joys of the piece is that it is not only anti-Semitic; Marlowe takes every opportunity to poke fun at religion and authority in general. Here we have officials who are just as untrustworthy as Barabas is portrayed, bullying and going back on their word. We also have a delightful scene where Friar Bernadine (Geoffrey Freshwater) and Friar Jacomo (Matthew Kelly, surprisingly in his first season at the RSC) come to blows when arguing about who might get Barabas’s wealth should he convert to Christianity. In fact, the only main character to come out of the piece with any credit is Barabas’s daughter Abigail (Catrin Stewart) – an obedient daughter who goes along with her father’s wishes until his excesses become too much even for her.
Although The Jew of Malta was written over 400 years ago, many of the themes still have great relevance today – Justin Audibert has chosen to set the piece during its originally-intended time period, but it could easily have been done modern dress as a contemporary work. It is fascinating to see how little some things have changed in 400 years, and well worth a visit.
Photo: Ellie Kurttz | Runs until 8th September 2015