Saturday, 25 July 2015

Theatre review: The Jew of Malta

Ever since I first read Christopher Marlowe's The Jew of Malta a few years ago I've been keen to see it on stage; not necessarily because of its virtues as a piece of writing, but to see how a 21st century production would cope with the aggressive antisemitism and racism that is even more at the heart of this story than it is in The Merchant of Venice. I thought it might crop up on the fringe at some point but in the event it was one of the country's biggest companies that took on the challenge, with Justin Audibert getting a baptism of fire on his RSC directing debut. The solution he's come up with is an interesting one, particularly in light of the fact that Merchant's LOLantisemitism attitude is often dealt with by ramping up the play's dark side: The opposite happens here, Marlowe's bloodthirsty and vicious revenge tragedy revealed as a black comedy.

Threatened with invasion by the Ottoman Empire, Malta wants to raise funds to fight them off, and Governor Ferneze (Steven Pacey) decides the way to do it is to tax the island's wealthy Jews of half their belongings. The richest of them all, Barabas (Jasper Britton) refuses, and is punished by having his entire property confiscated.

Thanks to a hidden stash though, he's soon able to restore his own wealth, and with the help of his newly-bought slave Ithamore (Lanre Malaolu) sets about taking revenge on the state. His plot to get Ferneze's son Don Lodowick (Andy Apollo) killed in a duel with love rival Don Mathias (Colin Ryan) backfires when they both die: His daughter Abigail (Catrin Stewart) loved Mathias, and turns her back on her father, converting to Christianity and joining a convent. Barabas' reasonable response is to poison all the nuns, including Abigail.

As written, Marlowe's Barabas is a recognisably unpleasant stereotype of a downright demonic Jew, and the clever response Audibert and Britton have come up with is to make him - if not actually sympathetic, which might be too much to ask - more of a cartoon Iago. So he's a gleefully comic villain, one who makes the audience his co-conspirators from the start and revels in his wickedness and flippant disregard for his own daughter's death. If Marlowe hadn't made things hard enough for a modern audience he also includes a black, Muslim slave who - a bit like a precursor to Titus Andronicus' Aaron - is just as enthusiastically committed to evil as his master. But Malaolu also makes Ithamore hard to dislike, largely thanks to the nervous energy he brings to the character, always to be found bounding around the stage or jumping up and down the marble steps that form the centrepiece of Lily Arnold's set.

Ithamore's downfall comes when he's smitten by a courtesan (Beth Cordingly) and convinced by her pimp (Matthew Needham) to turn against his master, but Barabas' step too far is taking on the whole city, and helping the Turkish forces of Calymath* (Marcus Griffiths) take over Malta. Staging The Jew of Malta in the first place seems risky, and giving it such a gleeful comic staging could have been an even bigger risk but it's paid off. I would, though, given how tongue-in-cheek the whole thing is, have liked to have seen the production revel in the gore and horror a bit more.

Great writer though Marlowe was, I doubt he had anything like this in mind, and was indeed going for what would then have been an easy target, but Audibert has succeeded in finding not just a depth to the writing that shows up the play's Christians even as they condemn those they call infidels; but also a way to have a lot of fun with a show that could have been incredibly uncomfortable to watch with 21st century eyes.

The Jew of Malta by Christopher Marlowe is booking in repertory until the 8th of September at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon.

Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes including interval.

*"Calymath! Calymath!"

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