The Theatreguide.London Review
Swan Theatre, Stratford-On-Avon Spring-Summer 2015
If you thought The Merchant Of Venice was anti-Semitic, just wait until you see Christopher Marlowe's 1589 extravaganza of villainy.
His antihero Barabas out-villains even Iago and Richard III while sharing their delight in their own nastiness, and the play offers him absolutely no redeeming virtues, unless you count expertise in his chosen field.
Introduced as his star pupil by no less than the spirit of Machiavelli, Barabas proceeds to employ his daughter in a plot to murder his enemy's son, blithely also killing the totally innocent man she loves in the process.
He then sends her into a nunnery in the guise of a convert to Christianity in order to steal some gold and jewels hidden there, and when he gets annoyed with her he kills her – and all the other nuns – by poisoning their oatmeal.
Some other incidental enemies are dispatched with the aromas of poisoned flowers while he's busy betraying Malta to the invading Turks and then re-betraying the Turks back to the Maltese.
He will just have blown up the entire Turkish army and be preparing to dunk the Maltese Christians in boiling oil when the approaching end of the play forces his final comeuppance.
Faced with this catalogue of over-the-top carnage, some modern productions have chosen to play it all as black farce in the Martin McDonagh mode. So it is much to the credit of director Justin Audibert and his actors that they play it absolutely straight, to the extent of quickly suppressing any nervous titters from the audience.
Jasper Britton's Barabas is simply evil. The play gives him a motive for his hatred of the Maltese Christians – they open the play by confiscating his riches – but this Barabas needs no excuse.
Britton plays him as defined by anger and hatred of just about everyone and everything, with his base level of viciousness roughly where Shakespeare's Shylock only reaches at his peak. It's an electric and stage-holding performance.
It is in the nature of the play (and typical of Marlowe) that few other characters are allowed to draw attention away from the central figure. Catrin Stewart gives the daughter flashes of wily intelligence that suggest a family gene at work, while Lanre Malaolu perks up a few scenes as Barabas's eager assistant baddie.
Ultimately The Jew Of Malta, like Marlowe's other plays, shows why he would have been the second-greatest playwright of his age even if he hadn't died young.
He creates exciting plots and writes rich and evocative verse. But there's a coldness at the core of his plays, an inability or disinclination to really get inside his characters and find a humanity we can recognise and share.
And so Barabas will always remain a lesser dramatic figure than Shylock or Iago, and Marlowe will always be Number Two.
But considering who is Number One, that's not bad.
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