At the beginning of the RSC’s new production of Marlowe’s understaged masterpiece, Simon Hedger comes on as Machiavel to deliver the prologue, dressed in a T-shirt cheekily emblazoned with ‘RMC’. It gets a big laugh, but also hints at a more serious point, namely what would have happened had Kit Marlowe – playwright, alleged spy and victim of a tavern brawl at the age of 29 – lived. Of his surviving plays, Doctor Faustus is regularly revived, Edward the Second achieved notoriety due to its creative use of a red-hot poker in the titular king’s execution, and Tamburlaine has a sort of crazed grandeur that belies the fact it was written by a man in his early twenties.
Yet for my money, Marlowe’s most enjoyable play – as well as his most subversive – is The Jew Of Malta, now revived by director Justin Audibert in his first RSC production. It’s best viewed as a crazed forerunner of The Merchant Of Venice, beginning essentially where that play concludes, with the central character’s humiliation and ostracisation by the Christians he reluctantly deals with, and then following his increasingly deranged revenge as he plays one side off against each other. Its themes of anti-semitism are as relevant today as they were in the 16th century, but while Shakespeare’s Shylock is a sorrowful, multi-faceted character, Marlowe’s Barabas is a villain who gleefully revels in his own corruption – as do the audience.
The main reason to see this new staging is Jasper Britton as Barabas. Some of the early reviews suggested that he was slightly stiff and could do with exploring the character’s audacious wickedness with more aplomb. Either they were inaccurate or Britton has found his evil mojo with (quite literally) a vengeance, as he anchors the character within some sort of relatable psychological reality, even as those around him do even worse. He’s an extraordinarily subtle actor, but is clearly having a fun time in the big, showy roles that Jacobean drama – and Marlowe in particular – specialised in.
Britton is backed up by a strong supporting cast including Lanre Malaolu as his slave and partner-in-crime Ithamore, Steven Pacey as the real villain of the piece, the hypocritical Christian governor Ferneze and Catrin Stewart as Barabas’s daughter Abigail. Fans of so-called ‘luxury casting’ – the appearance of famous actors in small roles – will be pleased to find Matthew Kelly as a hypocritical friar, whose lust for gold is only matched by his lust for nuns.
Audibert stages the play in period dress, which is probably a sensible move, and manages to keep the action flowing at a fast pace, thanks to several judicious trims to the text. If I missed some of the details (there’s a hilarious scene in which Barabas, conspiring with Abigail, publicly rejects her while privately giving her the location of his hidden gold, which is trimmed to the bone here), it’s a rare pleasure to go and see a classical revival which one leaves wishing it had been 20 minutes longer, rather than the other way round. This is a raucous, hugely entertaining production, and hopefully will make people realise that the play could do with several more outings in the future – with or without the excellent Britton in the lead.
The Jew of Malta runs at the Swan Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon until September 8th. For more information and tickets visit the RSC website.