The Merchant of Venice, Act 1, Scene 3
Despite my deep and enduring love for Shakespeare, before The Jew of Malta at the Swan Theatre (RSC), I’d never actually seen or read anything by one his biggest inspirations, Christopher Marlowe. All I knew was:
- He was famous for ‘over-reachers’ like Tamburlaine the Great
- Shakespeare nicked a lot of Marlowe’s ideas, character blocks, and even lines
- Some people think Marlowe was Shakespeare, that’s how similar their works are
And still I was a little dubious about seeing what I presumed was a less-complex, less-good The Merchant of Venice – especially since I saw such an amazing production of the latter at the Almeida Theatre in January this year.
However, Marlowe has completely turned me round; yes, his words were helped a lot by some clever (although not particularly subtle) directing by Justin Audibert which underlined all the hypocrisy of the Christians, but actually, the script (although it had its uncomfortable anti-Semitic moments) was far more complex, religiously, than I would have given Marlowe credit for.
The plot is this: Barabas, an incredibly wealthy Jew, has all his wealth confiscated, and his house turned into a nunnery to help save the city of Malta from the invading Turkish Empire. Naturally this angers him, since the Christians haven’t had to pay anything. The rest of the play is basically his mad ruthless plans for vengeance, which escalate further and further until they engulf the entire city. To say it’s a violent play would be an understatement; there are sword fights, poisonings, and pots of boiling water.
Yet, beneath all of this madness is a rich vein of comedy, mainly provided by Barabas’ slave, and friend, Ithamore, played brilliantly by Lanre Malaolu. Malaolu was probably my favourite thing about this production; lurking and squirming about at the back of the stage, it was hard to take your eyes off his mischievous, gleeful reactions, even when more important action was going on in front of him.
That’s not to take away from Jasper Britton’s excellent performance at Barabas, although it was here really that the difference between Shakespeare and Marlowe really revealed itself. It was just plot twist after plot twist with no room for soliloquies which could have given us a little more insight into Barabas or Ithamore’s characters. However, Britton played the part with supreme passion – so much so that spit was flying across the stage and strands of his hair kept sticking to his face (which did get a little bit distracting at times, I have to say). His chemistry with Catrin Stewart, who played his daughter Abigail, was particularly impressive, in no small part due to Stewart’s own powerful performance. I’m looking forward to seeing her take hopefully an even bigger role this week in Love’s Sacrifice.
Apart from these three stand-outs, the rest of the cast was of a very high standard, as is usual at the RSC. I particularly liked the two I recognised instantly from my beloved Globe Theatre, Colin Ryan as Don Mathias and Matthew Needham as Pilia Borza, and the two friars – Geoffrey Freshwater and Matthew Kelly – brought some brilliant comedy moments. Saying this, I did find some of the authority figures a little dull, and their voices were often too loud for my liking; this seems to be a common pitfall when doing these more boring sections of an Elizabethan/Jacobean play, in an effort to keep the audience’s attention.
The set was clean and stream-lined, but didn’t make a particularly big impression, except for the iron-gated trap door which was slammed open and shut multiple times to the chagrin of those in the front row. The music was lovely, thanks to music director Jonathan Girling. For me, it was definitely the actors and the dark comedy of the script that made this worth watching. Like many of the recent RSC productions (see The White Devil) the religious hypocrisy was played up to the nth degree – personally I’m getting a little tired of the many over-emphasised signs of the cross, but they did make sense in this context. The story and the glee shown by Barabas and Ithamore over each succeeding excessively evil plot make this a surprisingly fun evening out, and definitely a great introduction to Marlowe’s works.
The Jew of Malta at Swan Theatre (RSC): 3/5 stars