The Jew of Malta
Directed by Justin Audibert
Royal Shakespeare Company,
Swan Theatre, Stratford-Upon-Avon
Wednesday 1st April 2015, 1.30
Andy Apollo (Don Lodowick)
Sheila Atim (Attendant)
Jasper Britton (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).
I’d neither read nor seen The Jew of Malta before, though we played with the title in our ELT comedy detective story Double Identity where a lost Shakespeare play is found in Oxford, The Falcon of Malta. That was inspired by our producer suggesting that Double Identity sounded like Double Indemnity and brain-storming on film noire brought up The Maltese Falcon. I remembered the Marlowe play and we had a title.
I complained in the Death of A Salesman review “Wot? No Shakespeare?” at the RSC this month, but straight away the Jew of Malta compensates. This production of the “second greatest Elizabethan playwright” has all the things that draw us back to the RSC: first rate acting, great set, gorgeous costumes, powerful live music, dance-like fight scenes, spectacle. Before we hear dialogue we have a song in Hebrew by Barabas and ensemble, followed by a liturgical piece by the Christians.
It’s running before the RSC production of The Merchant of Venice this season. The Almeida revived their “Las Vegas” Merchant of Venice earlier this year, and the Almeida programme notes on anti-semitism say that while the Shakespeare play was about anti-semitism, the Marlowe was plain anti-semitic, and further it was produced five times to foment anti-semitism in 1594 when Rodrigo Lopéz, a Portuguese Jew was charged with poisoning Queen Elizabeth. The play may date from as early as 1589, though productions in 1592 were popular. By 1594, Marlowe was already dead, so it’s hardly his fault, and in any case, like Shakespeare it has been considered questionable whether he would ever have met a Jew in Elizabethan London, as Jews were expelled from England in 1290, and “readmitted” in 1656 under Oliver Cromwell. The RSC programme notes contradict that straight away: there were around 150 Jews in Elizabethan London.
The reason for revival in 2015 is clear. It’s about communities forced together in spite of religious differences. In Marlowe’s world, the Ottoman Turks were an ever-present threat. This play references the Siege of Malta in 1565. The Turks had besieged Vienna in 1529, and were to reach the gates again in 1683. Add the fact that within one religion, the Catholics and Protestants were at daggers drawn, and you can see parallels of Sunnis fighting Shiites with a really frightening group bent on forced conversion or killing in the background. Then you have the rise of anti-semitism in France and other countries.
Is the play anti-semitic? I thought not. I would say that Marlowe, well aware of Catholic v Protestant and Christian v Moslem, brings in a “third religion” and uses the long prejudices (they killed Christ, etc) to slyly attack the lot. It is rather “anti-religious.” The prologue, Machiavell(i) says:
I count religion but a childish toy
And hold there is no sin but ignorance.
Machiavel is in modern dress: a black suit and a T-shirt with RMC … Royal Marlowe Company, pastiching the RSC logo. Thus he remains outside the play, which is 16th century costume.
The very cross Maltese confront the Turks, Ferneze centre (Steven Pacey)
Barabas, named for the thief released from crucifixion with Christ, is our central figure: the Jew. He is “radicalized” in 2015 terms by the shameful treatment he receives from Christians. The Maltese government cannot afford to pay tribute to stave off the Turkish invasion fleet. They levy only the Jews to pay a tax of 50% of their wealth, with the addition that they must convert to Christianity. If they decline to convert, they lose the lot. Barabas has all his wealth confiscated, and in a predecessor of the Mansion Tax, has his home confiscated and turned into a nunnery. The Maltese knights are racist and vicious … they kick him, stamp on him, spit on him; the friars are hypocrites with lustful eyes upon the nuns. For the first third of the play, the sympathies of the audience are drawn to Barabas, the anti-hero, much aided in this production by the twinkle in Jasper Britton’s eyes.
Barabas (Jasper Britton) and Abigail (Catrin Stewart)
Barabas has prudently hidden some money in his house against such an eventuality and persuades his daughter, Abigail, to seek entry to the nunnery as a novice, so that she can recover the gold. Christianity has shown its violent streak which was at its height in 1589. A year after the Spanish Armada, Marlowe has a Spanish admiral pulling the strings in Malta. The nunnery section brings out the two competing friars, Friar Barnadine and Friar Jacomo. They’re a seedy pair to be in charge of young nuns, and Marlowe knew about Catholic priests and scandal. As Barabas sends Abigail into the nunnery watched with prurient interest from the friars, he says Religion hides many mischiefs from suspicion, a line that got immediate laugh.
Barabas has just purchased Ithamore
Barabas gets his wealth back, but seeks revenge. The first thing he does is purchase a slave, a newly captured Turk … both Christians and Moslems are slave owners. We see a pit with four slaves with prices on their backs (CCC for 300, CC for 200 and C for 100). Barabas choose the cheapest to emphasise another Christian prejudice, Ithamore. Ithamore is a “Turk” or rather a Moor here, It’s a major role, played by Lanre Malaolu. Ithamore is to a degree the Elizabethan ‘fool’ role as well as becoming Barabas’s chief assistant in villainy … they both hate Christians. The interpretation is startlingly animal: eye-rolling, leaping about, nose picking (and tasting).
Don Lodowick (standing, Andy Apollo), fights Don Mathias (Colin Ryan)
Then he sets Abigail’s two suitors against each other. Don Lodowick is the governor’s son, and Don Mathias is the son of “the widow Katherine.” By trickery he gets them to fight to the death. Though Abigail has helped in the plot, she did love Don Mathias, and is now against Barabas. She decides to go back to the nunnery. Incidentally, lines keep reminding you of later Shakespeare. Barabas mentions ‘merchants of Venice’ and you think, ‘get thee to a nunnery …’ Barabas is infuriated and decides, as one might, to poison the entire nunnery with Ithamore’s assistance. The nuns come on stage and start frothing white vomit. We’re about to move our attention to the sleazy friars. It’s weird how word association drifts into your mind. I was reminded of a Christchurch caƒé in my youth called the Friar Tuck, known universally to teenagers as the Try A F … well, fill in the gap. As Abigail expires with the line, Witness that I die a Christian! Friar Barnadine adds Ay, and a virgin too. That grieves me most!
Abigail joins the nunnery. Friar Jacomo left (Matthew Kelly), Friar Barnadine right (Geoffrey Freshwater)
The destruction of the friars is wonderfully done. First, Barabas sets them against each other by promising to convert (he gets baptized in the water tank at the front of stage) then offering his wealth to each’s religious order in turn. They’re than both competing for the cash. The rear stage is steep steps, and Barabas and Ithamore strangle Barnadine with a rope, descending the steps as he struggles. They then prop up the body, and when Friar Jacomo turns up, induce him to slap Barnadine … who falls over, so they then accuse Jacomo of killing him. Jacomo goes off to be executed.
The ending was the only point where absolute transparency of text failed. It is heavily cut after all. We got the general story. The Turks arrive for their tribute and Barabas helps them take over … the battle is a dance between Maltese and Turks, Excellent choreography and music. The Governor, Ferneze becomes a Turkish prisoner and Barabas is made governor. Inexplicably (to us) Barabas then decides to free the governor and kill the Turkish army by blowing them up (off stage) and inviting the Turkish leader Calymath, and his posse to dinner. His plan is to drop them into boiling oil. The Maltese turn up, looking very cross, and kill the Turks and capture Calymath, son of the Emperor, for ransom. They then lower Barabas into the boiling oil.
The play works so well because it has been heavily and judiciously cut and played for pace. Without studying the original, it’s hard to assess Marlowe’s targets. Christians certainly, the central Jew too, but that’s personal rather than general. Tellingly, Barabas says early on Some Jews are wicked, as all Christians are. In fact the Moslem Turks don’t display any direct anti-semitic prejudice to Barabas, and they appoint him governor, not that it stops Barabas destroying them at the end. It reminds me that Jews in 14th century Moorish-held Granada, or in Bagdad, enjoyed religious toleration. Both Jews and Christians were held by Moslems then to be monotheistic “peoples of the book” (Bible) so not subject to persecution. In Spanish Granada, the victory of Ferdinand and Isabella resulted in a choice for Jews between forced conversion to Christianity and expulsion from Spain, along with the Moors. It’s a Spanish fleet that’s supporting Malta against the Turks. Barabas’s motivation is maximizing evil, but really he’d have been better advised just to go with the Turks!
Calymath (Marcus Griffiths)
The casting is excellent. Jasper Britton has created a future mention in theatre histories for his Barabas. He’s tall, and he doesn’t look Jewish (and the actor isn’t) and he does not use a “Jewish accent” though the Christians mock a Jewish accent and mime a hooked nose. Good choices. Lanre Malaolu’s performance has that delicious edge of nearly, but not quite, going over the top. Geoffrey Freshwater and Matthew Kelly are a double act as the friars. The Turks are magnificently attired, and it’s not colour blind … ethnicity separates the “Turks” and “Christians.”
Ithamore (Lanre Malaolu)
Overall: Five stars
Charles Nichol’s detailed essay on this production in The Guardian is essential reading (linked), and I’ll quote him:
Think Wolf Hall reimagined by Quentin Tarantino, and you begin to get the feel of it. The title page of the first extant edition (1633) describes the play as a tragedy, but as T.S. Eliot observed nearly a century ago, it becomes more “intelligible” if one takes it “not as a tragedy … but as a farce”, written in a tone of “serious, even savage comic humour”. Eliot also enjoyed the equivocating shrug of Barabas’s response to a charge of fornication – “But that was in another country, / And besides the wench is dead” – and took it for the epigraph for his poem Portrait of A Lady.