Eerily topical, Christopher Marlowe’s bold stab at the dirty sides of all three Abrahamic religions found a thrilling interpretation by Justin Audibert and his ingenious ensemble on the RSC’s Swan stage.
Barabas, the Jew, has built up considerable wealth, when Malta has to pay tribute to the Turks, and the Christian Governor requisitions Jewish property to cover these costs. Not willing to give up half of his possessions, Barabas protests, whereupon he is beaten, spat at and robbed of everything.
In his revenge, he uses his daughter’s charms against the Governor’s son and Don Mathias, her other suitor, who kill each other. He then employs his slave Ithamore in a poisoning plot against the nuns who converted his house into a convent, and his daughter, who sought refuge with them. Next, they murder one of the two greedy, lecherous friars and frame the other for it.
Barabas opens the city gates to the Turks for invasion and even, for a short while, becomes Governor of Malta. Betrayed by his slave, just before he, too, dies from Barabas’s poisoning, the Jew of Malta is arrested and executed.
It has often been tried to label this play as anti-Semitic. That can hardly be true. There is no sympathy for Christian or Muslim behaviour, either. The Machiavelli character, who in the prologue says: “I count religion but a childish toy.” remains the only honest person.
An unforgiving, yet again and again hilarious storyline, wrapped in mesmerizing music by Jonathan Girling for which a special mention is owed to Adam Cross’s striking Klezmer clarinet and Anna Bolton’s beautiful singing.
Jasper Britton has the Jew where Marlowe must have wanted him: vulnerable, detached, cheeky. He is complemented by Catrin Stewart playing Abigail, the Jew’s kind, yet fatefully naïve daughter. Lanre Malaolu gives Ithamore, the slave, a level of such tragic neglect that he becomes the saddest character of the play.
Ferneze, Governor of Malta, that is Steven Pacey, who does a brilliant job with his portrayal of this blinkered Christian power player.
Sheer joy comes with the two “religious caterpillars”, Friar Barnadine (Geoffrey Freshwater) and Friar Jacomo (Matthew Kelly), who in their avaricious lecherousness form a very special clownesque pair.
A breathtaking, enthralling and throughout de-blinkering production which, in the 21st century, just couldn’t be more up-to-date.
18 March to 8 September 2015, Swan Theatre, Royal Shakespeare Company, Stratford-upon-Avon
Photos: Ellie Kurttz © RSC
Andy Apollo – Don Lodowick
Sheila Atim – Attendant
Jasper Britton (pictured) – Barabas
Guy Burgess – First Knight
Beth Cordingly – Bellamira
Geoffrey Freshwater – Friar Barnadine
Marcus Griffiths – Calymath
Rhiannon Handy – Attendant
Simon Hedger – Merchant
Julian Hoult – Merchant
Matthew Kelly – Friar Jacomo
Annette McLaughlin – Katherine
Lanre Malaolu – Ithamore
Matthew Needham – Pilia-Borza
Steven Pacey – Ferneze
Richard Rees – Martin del Bosco
Colin Ryan – Don Mathias
Nav Sidhu – Callapine
Catrin Stewart – Abigail
Gabby Wong – Abbess
Director – Justin Audibert
Designer – Lily Arnold
Lighting – Oliver Fenwick
Music – Jonathan Girling
Sound – Claire Windsor
Movement – Lucy Cullingford
Fights – Kev McCurdy