Theater Review: Christopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta, by the Royal Shakespeare Company

It’s quite telling that the current performance of Christopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta, at the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Swan Theatre, is a rousing comedy. Originally entitled The Famous Tragedy of the Rich Jew of Malta, this play was a scathing attack on Jews, with the lead character, Barabas, showing every trait that anti-Semites use to attack Jews.

But presenting this play more than 500 years after it was first performed, there’s no way to take it seriously. What was once an earnest tragedy, presenting the everyday racism of the 16th century, and showing how Christians overcame a Jew, has to be turned into a comedy to function on stage. And the RSC have done a remarkable job with it.

The play itself isn’t very good, and is more of interest for its possible influence on Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice (which the RSC is performing this summer). The language isn’t great, and the story is complex, involving religious quarrels, money, marriage, deaths and vengeance, leading to the death of Barabas as he tries to become the governor of Malta.

The Christian governor of the island imposes a tax on Jews, taking half their assets, in order to pay off the Turks who are trying to invade the island. Barabas, the “rich Jew of Malta,” protests, and the governor takes all of his money. He tries to get revenge, first inciting a duel between the governor’s son Lodowick and his friend Mathias, who are both enamored of Barabas’ daughter Abigail. After they both die, Abigial learns that her father was behind their death, and goes off to join a nunnery.

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Barabas buys a slave, Ithamore, and convinces him that he will make the former slave his heir. Together, they poison the nuns, then kill one of the friars and have the other hanged for his death. They then poison a prostitute and her friend who are attempting to get money from Barabas.

Barabas then feigns death, only to help the Turkish army find a way into Malta to take over the island. But this is thwarted as the Maltese discover his plot, and kill the Turks, and then Barabas.

From this synopsis, you can see that this is quite the tragedy, with a body count nearly as high as that of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus. But as anti-Semitism is once again increasing in Europe, the only way to work with a text like this is to present it as a farce, and director Justin Audibert, in his RSC debut, does just that.

Jasper Britton as Barabas is massive. His presence is what drives the play, especially because he is on stage for about one-third of the time. He plays this part in a slightly hammy manner, staying just shy of over-exaggerating. His acting is superb, leading one to wonder if he wouldn’t have also been a great Shylock in the RSC’s forthcoming Merchant of Venice. He is at times funny, pathetic, and sad. Yet he never wavers in his conviction that he has been wronged, and that he has to get even.

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Another notable talent is Lanre Malaolu, who first adopts animalistic movements, like a lion in a cage, when he is bought as a slave, and then unshackled. Through the play, he adopts a swagger that shows how much his character has changed, and filled the position as Barabas’ henchman. It’s not clear what his motivations are, other than to simply get even with those who had enslaved him.

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While the acting by the entire cast is excellent, what I think really won over the audience last night – which erupted in rapturous applause at the end of the play – was the overall atmosphere of the play. With fast pacing, attractive costumes, attractive light and music, the occasional dance routine and fight scene, all on a simple set (nothing more than a tiled floor with a stone terraced staircase at the back of the stage), the visuals of this play made it more than the sum of its parts. It avoided being long and turgid; Audibert cut some 45 minutes from the play, making it a taut 130 minutes long (plus intermission). It was quite simply entertaining.

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Taken like this – a comedy, with often slapstick moments – The Jew of Malta works well. It’s not faithful to its original intention, it’s not a tragedy, and the anti-Semitism is quashed by comedy. And that’s a good thing.

(Photos by Ellie Kurtz for the RSC.)