July 26, 2015, by Peter Kirwan
The Jew of Malta (RSC) @ The Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
Seeing The Jew of Malta immediately after seeing Volpone, with both performed by the same ensemble, brings out some surprising similarities between two very different plays. Both feature states with a severe – and arguably corrupt – rule of law; both feature a rich role-player as the morally deficient protagonist who deploys alternative personas as part of his practice, and who has a corrupt servant as his confidante and co-conspirator; both invite sympathy with deplorable acts; both result in a punishment that, perhaps, draws as much attention to the insufficiency of justice as it does to the crime itself. The talented Swan ensemble, unsurprisingly, brought much of its flair for comedy to a tragedy that is as outlandish in its gall as it is severe in its swift deaths, beginning with Simon Hedger’s Machiavel bouncing on stage in a ‘Royal Marlowe Company’ t-shirt and inviting the audience from the start to critique the religious hypocrisy of the play.
The mix of humour and serious comment began immediately as Jasper Britton’s Barabas began singing a Jewish hymn while hooded figures performed a costume change upon him, shifting him from a pious-seeming religious man to the jewel-bedecked tycoon whose personal wealth could redeem Malta from the Turkish threat. The period Maltese setting was evoked through a set of stone steps and a background score of Mediterranean and Jewish folk music, and Britton’s Barabas was a self-aware, self-made man of his age. Whether in direct address to the audience, in his confrontations with the governors of Malta, or in his domestic dealings, Barabas had a possession of himself and an audacious confidence that showed him to be the most significant power on this island, able to bounce back from any circumstance with a quip and a smile. Yet as his plots escalated, Britton gradually introduced the bitterness of his vengeance and what appeared to be a nihilistic vision that just wanted to see people – literally – burn.
The episodic structure of this play is typically Marlovian, and somewhat disconcerting as characters in whom the audience is invited to invest drop dead much earlier than expected. Yet what Justin Audibert’s production made clear right from the start was that Barabas’s scourging of the island was a direct result of his antisemitic treatment at the hands of the authorities. Not only were Barabas and his fellow Jewish merchants called in to give up half of their wealth (or have it all taken forcibly), but Barabas was spat upon repeatedly, beaten and kicked on the floor and left bloodied. It was this same culture of cruelty that was revisited at the end of the play, with the newly triumphant Ferneze (Steven Pacey) laughing as he had Barabas lowered into a bubbling pit of tar (brilliantly realised under a grille in Lily Arnold’s set). While the production hardly condoned Barabas’s actions, the clear implication seemed to be admiration for his capacity to assert his own identity in defiance of a brutal, prejudicial state.
Characters minor and major came and went quickly, but the structure of the play was one of repeated escalation as Barabas reacted to his previous betrayal, recruited support, delivered vengeance, then was betrayed, and so on in a cycle. Barabas became an increasingly isolated figure, which was a pity as he was at his charismatic best when embedded in the community. Initially his relationship with his similarly canny daughter Abigail (Catrin Stewart) was the main focus, the two staging a heist together and revelling in their playacting of a falling out and mocking Abigail’s adopted nun’s habit. Barabas was fatherly and affectionate but also committed to his task, stringing his daughter along with smiles and loving words but also stepping on her hopes quickly when it suited him to have her lover killed. For her part, Abigail had her father’s self-possession as she assumed a coquettish attitude to lead on Andy Apollo’s Don Lodowick but then confront her father directly over his refusal to let her pursue her real love for Colin Ryan’s Don Mathias.
In Lanre Malaolu, Barabas found an able and willing slave. I was unsettled by Malaolu’s evocation of animalistic tropes in his performance, at different points barking or panting like a dog, or scuttling sideways down steps, but his Ithamore was an eager and cruel enabler of Barabas’s actions, quick to learn but fundamentally stupid. His easy seduction by the prostitutes showed his lack of independent thought, rendering him little more than a henchman to the much more quick-witted Barabas. Where Malaolu most succeeded was in the delight he took in his actions, particularly as he delivered an account of the trickery of the Dons into killing one another.
The episodic nature of the play gave most actors an opportunity to shine. Apollo and Ryan were both spoiled and vehemently chivalric in their quickness to feud with one another, and their duel was a genuinely impressive moment of physical violence. They were by far the most innocent of Barabas’s victims, though Apollo brought out the disdain of his father Ferenze in his treatment of Barabas. Ryan, by contrast, played Mathias as the more honourable and deferential of the men, albeit both underestimated their would-be stepfather’s own wishes. Yet with them dead and Abigail returned (for real) to a convent, the murders began stacking up. The decision to kill the nuns was staged simply and powerfully, Ithamore cowering before a boiling pot into which Barabas grandly poured his poison, and Britton’s cold dismissal of affection for his daughter played effectively against the sight of four nuns simultaneously spewing white mulch from their mouths in the succeeding scene.
The priests to whom Abigail had confessed, played by Geoffrey Freshwater and Matthew Kelly, worked as a more obviously comic vignette, as they first joined forces to rail against Barabas for killing the nuns and then turned to violence against one another in their bid to confess and convert Barabas – and thereby gain his goods for themselves. The violent strangulation of Friar Barnardine saw Freshwater splayed upon the steps while Barabas and Ithamore both pulled at a cord around his neck from a great distance, his death as undignified as his own hypocrisy, and the quick arrest of Jacomo for the crime afterwards was a fitting end. This was followed by Ithamore’s own betrayal, the slave overawed at the seductions within the brothel. Matthew Needham and Beth Cordingly as pimp and prostitute made an excellent double act, cooing to Ithamore and making signs behind his back as they ran their slick operation. That they and Ithamore all died offstage made for something of an anticlimax, but was compensated for by Britton’s fine disguise as a lute player, strumming his instrument tunelessly and cackling in broken French as the conspirators all inhaled the poisoned fumes of the flower he brought to their chambers.
With Ithamore dead (a disappointment not dissimilar to that in Edward II when Gaveston dies), the play turned to the political consequences. These were implicit throughout in staged physical sequences as the turbaned and scimitared Turks arrived at the Maltese court and engaged in combative salutation/dance with the inhabitants. The repeated stagings of confrontation fought for control of the steps against the less privileged downstage area. Between these worlds was Barabas removed, he being rolled down the steps by the Maltese authorities and dumped, wrapped in swaddling, into a pit in the ground. Barabas’s reemergence, with a cry of ‘A miracle!’, evoked and mocked Christian resurrection, and his ensuing actions saw him more reckless and unhinged as he set events in motion rather than carrying them out himself. The taking and retaking of Malta involved a choreography of surrounding and besieging, with the Turks first surrounding Barabas himself and then the Maltese soldiers. In turn, Barabas let the Governor out of the same pit into which he himself had been cast, replicating the physical blocking of reclamation and punishment, and setting him free to gather money. Barabas’s short-sightedness in this scene was difficult to explain except in terms of his own nihilistic abandon. Having already set the city to ruin by letting the Turks in, his joy in a small casket of money to reverse his actions seemed unfounded – he just wanted to watch the city burn again.
Barabas’s final ruin, hung from the ceiling by chains and lowered slowly, screaming and cursing, into the steaming vat, was a fittingly dramatic end to a character who thrived on drama. While the punishment seemed cruelly spectacular, Barabas’s repeated staging of his own miraculous escapes and murders necessitated an unambiguous torture and conclusion, and Barabas’s descent into the vat was also a consignment to Hell. Yet in the severe and overly gloating victory of the Christian forces, the production also implied that one of the few voices of conscientious objection and constraint on institutional violence had also been silenced; the eradication of both Turks and Jews by the Christians seemed a hollow victory. Yet as with Volpone, it was the return of the protagonist for his solo bow that raised the roof, both plays celebrating the audacity of disguise and self-determination over the anodyne achievements of government.