GORDON PARSONS sees an RSC production of The Jew of Malta which sits uneasily between tragedy and farce
The Jew Of Malta, The Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon 3/5
IF SHAKESPEARE had never written The Merchant of Venice, which arrives at the RSC’s main house in Stratford later this season, it is questionable whether Christopher Marlowe’s black farce would be produced today.
His portrayal of Barabas in the Jew of Malta, who brags of his fabulous wealth and claims to “walk abroad a-nights and kill sick people groaning under walls,” could sit alongside those grotesque nazi propaganda images of Jews.
Barabas has none of the saving humanity of Shylock in Shakespeare’s play, who makes the audience question their own prejudices. But what emerges from Justin Audibert’s production is that while playing to Elizabethan stereotype images of the Jew, Marlowe’s savage satire is levelled at the ingrained hypocrisy of the Christian Establishment.
From the opening ceremony, religion acts as a front for power and avarice. Barabas conducts a mock baptism, echoed later when he himself is almost drowned by over-eager monks anxious to inherit his gold, in a waterboarding-type version of the christening ritual.
If the character has no saving graces, Jasper Britton’s Barabas exhibits an ebullient charm as he delights in his triumphs over the bullying thugs of Malta’s Christian rulers. Unlike his adversaries — “legally” stealing his money and his property to pay off their debts — there is no trace of the hypocrisy that informs their every action.
The characters have the vitality of cartoons, with Lanre Malaolu’s Ithamore — who Barabas frees from slavery to serve as his able and willing sidekick — a delightfully villainous Puck to his master’s malevolent Prospero.
Audibert’s production, full of colour, music and dramatically choreographed movement, nevertheless sits uneasily between tragedy and farce in its determination to underscore its main point.
The audience are not encouraged to laugh at the cruelty meted out to the Jews in the first half and consequently are not sure what reaction is expected when the play descends into knock-about mayhem after the interval.
Marlowe is reputed to have died cursing, just like Barabas as he is lowered into the vat of boiling oil prepared for his enemies, thus ensuring a “happy ending” — and betrayal all round.