THE JEW OF MALTA Swan, Stratford upon Avon

In Plays, Regional theatre by Libby PurvesLeave a Comment

THE BOUQUET! IT WAS POISONED! We are supposed to be thinking about the history of European antisemitism, tracking back to the 16th century when Christopher Marlowe wrote this play ,and the 15th, where he set it. And it’s all here – the ‘blood libel’, the accusations of physical dirtiness combined with greedy wealth, the spitting contempt and – not least – the undercurrent of awareness (Marlowe was no fool) that the thing which most annoyed Christians was that Jews were so damn clever, and that the fear of them was fuelled in a vicious circle by guilt at the violence meted out to them. We all fear the people we maltreat. Thus our anti-hero Barabas – after the governor of Malta seizes all his property to pay off invading Turks – vows vengeance and runs rings round the ruling élite. He uses his daughter as bait to make suitors kill each other, then when she gets angry and converts he poisons her entire convent with rice-porridge, thus enabling the deathlessly plonking line “All the nuns are dead. Let’s bury them”. Moving on, he murders one friar and frames the other, and poisons his blackmailing servant, a courtesan and a pimp by disguising himself as a pantalooned “French musician” banging incompetently on a lute and giving them a poisoned (albeit fascinatingly slow-acting) posy of flowers to smell. Oh, and he fakes his death, admits the invading Turks through a sewer, gets made governor but burns all their soldiers to death. Which, accidentally, enables the Christian governor to turn the tables and drop him through his own secret trapdoor. A clever Jew, see? And, as performed by Jasper Britton under the gamesome direction of Justin Audibert (a riproaring RSC directorial debut), disgracefully likeable in a confiding, Richard-III way. When he brags “”I walk abroad a-nights and kill sick people groaning under walls; sometimes I go about and poison wells…” we get a strong sense Barabas is parodying the prejudice he meets, and probably couldn’t be bothered to do any of it. And anything which could be uncomfortable about this cheerily brutal evening – pitched somewhere between farce and mumming-play – is that Christopher Marlowe is disgusted with the Christians too. They’re stupid, cruel, lecherous and as keen on money as anyone. The two friars are greedy, venal and competitive and deserve their fate. Only Abigail, used as a pawn by her father and converting when she grieves her dead lover, is at all decent (Catrin Stewart gives her great dignity and the only depth of feeling in the play). As she expires with “I died a Christian” the friar can only gropingly regret that she died a virgin too. Audibert is not afraid of incidental comedy : even the bearers removing a corpse do “stone paper scissors” to decide who takes the messy end, and the poisoned nuns, to a background of yearning plainsong, actually foam at the mouth. Lanre Malaolu’s Ithamore , bought in the slave-market by Barabas’, escapes his early degradation to be caperingly wild and deliciously depraved. And there’s even a line prefiguring a centuries-later satire on human behaviour when Barabas says “I am my own best friend”. Yessir! Marlowe got there before CHICAGO… box office 0844 800 1110 to 8 sept RATING four     

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Libby Purves
Libby Purves was theatre critic for The Times from 2010 to 2013. Determined to continue her theatre commentary after losing that job, she set up her own site in October 2013. She personally reviews all major London openings, usually with on-the-night publication, and also gives voice to a new generation of critics with occasional guest 'theatrekittens'. In addition to her theatre writing and myriad other credits, Libby has been a presenter on BBC Radio 4’s Midweek for over 30 years. She is also the author of a dozen novels, and numerous non-fiction titles. In 1999, Libby was appointed an OBE for services to journalism.

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