Seeing The Jew of Malta at Stratford-upon-Avon this summer provided me a couple of firsts: my first visit to The Swan Theatre and the first time I’ve seen a Christopher Marlowe play performed. I’ve wanted to go to The Swan for years, so to finally go there and see such a dark, funny and gruesome production on my very first visit was a real treat.
Set in 1565, The Jew of Malta is a twisty, treacherous tale with betrayals and bodies piling up as Barabas, the Jew, seeks revenge after his fortune is seized by the Christian Governor of Malta to bribe the threatening Turks and avert invasion.
Barabas’s villainy knows no bounds and he leaves a trail of poisoned nuns and courtesans, strangled friars, slain suitors and a broken-hearted daughter behind him, showing not a shred of remorse.
As Barabas, Jasper Britton gave a wonderfully charismatic performance, so compelling that despite his character’s atrocious behaviour, I still found myself rooting for him to triumph over his enemies. Barabas’s direct addresses to the audience made us complicit and he seduced us with his plotting, his mischief and his audacity.
Justin Audibert’s direction excelled in showing a world filled with grasping men and women of all religions, races and creeds. Everyone has their price, everyone is led by their greed and desires. It’s a murky, venal, horrible place where those in authority, the leaders and the priests, are the worst of all offenders.
(Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?)
Marlowe’s play has been criticised for its anti-Semitic tone in portraying Barabas as a stereotypically greedy Jew, but Audibert’s production held a harsh mirror up to the world to show that we are all guilty of greed, selfishness and vindictiveness, no matter who we are, where we come from and what we believe.
Supporting Britton’s exceptional performance was a very strong cast, including Matthew Kelly and Geoffrey Freshwater as a creepy double act of rapacious, lascivious friars, their reprehensible behaviour provoking audible groans of disgust from the audience.
Lanre Malaolu, as Ithamore, was also great, progressing from being Barabas’s downtrodden slave to his gleefully murderous accomplice and finally paying the price for trying to double-cross his master (poisoned by a posy, what a way to go).
The production design by Lily Arnold was spot on, with the uncomplicated staging (a steep set of stone steps, flagstones and a pool of water) showcasing the sumptuous jewel-coloured costumes of the Turkish forces and the saucy courtesans, while the Maltese nobles’ monochrome robes stood out in stark relief against the set’s pale background.
There was an adrenalin-pumping battle scene between the Turkish and Maltese soldiers too which, in the Swan’s intimate setting, made for a thrilling spectacle as the soldiers wheeled and spun around the deep thrust stage, with clamouring roars and swords clashing.
The final image of the play, after more double-crossings than I can count, and Barabas’s defeat and gruesome death by boiling oil (horribly convincing!), was the pool of water slowly turning black with pollution. A fitting visual metaphor to end this gratifyingly dark comedy.
*In an appropriately gruesome post-script, I came home one day to find that my cat had left a dead mouse on the cover of The Jew of Malta programme – hence the white patches in the photo above where the mouse got sort of glued on with its own blood. Ewwww. However, I do feel Christopher Marlowe would’ve approved of this macabre gesture…