The Jew of Malta, by Christopher Marlowe

Justin Audibert’s sparkling production showcases the tragedy’s uneasy blend of offence and elation with just a hint of Tarantino, says Peter J. Smith

April 2, 2015

Source: Royal Shakespeare Company

Dark detail: Ferneze (played by Steven Pacey) in a scene from Justin Audibert’s production, which combined ‘fleetness with comic gaiety’

The Jew of Malta

By Christopher Marlowe
Directed by Justin Audibert
Starring Jasper Britton
Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
In repertory until 8 September 2015

In a week in which more than a million fans of Top Gear demanded the reinstatement of its racially offensive presenter, the former head of the Equality and Human Rights Commission proclaimed the collapse of multiculturalism. Jeremy Clarkson’s supporters include David Cameron, a prime minister trapped between condemning an opposing political party which espouses the repeal of all anti-discrimination legislation and supporting his Chipping Norton buddy (“a huge talent”), whose rendition of “Eeny Meeny Miny Mo” and use of the word “slope” to describe a Burmese are symptomatic of his unsavoury attitudes to race.

Meantime, Trevor Phillips, Tony Blair’s former tsar on racial issues, in a documentary for Channel 4 (19 March), purported to demonstrate the truth of such simplistic slurs as “Jews are rich and powerful” (I’m not making this up). Phillips concluded that a harmonious multiculturalism is an impossible Utopia and that we are all happier in racially segregated compounds. While the furore surrounding Clarkson illustrates the blunt end of discrimination, Phillips’ advocacy of apartheid is more insidious, deriving as it does from ostensibly statistical evidence. The very title – Things We Won’t Say About Race That Are True – pre-empts any dissent.

In the background to such media tempests is an alarming upsurge in European anti-Semitism demonstrated by the vandalising, in February, of a French Jewish cemetery, while the revelation that many European Jews feel vulnerable to attack prompted Binyamin Netanyahu to invite them to relocate to Israel – in a move that Phillips would presumably support.

So what do we do with plays by Shakespeare and his contemporaries that appear to arouse such racial divisions? For there is not the slightest chance, were The Jew of Malta penned today, that it would ever get performed. Indeed, its author would be likely to end up on a charge of incitement to racial hatred. Where do we strike the balance between the promulgation of canonical texts (including racist ones) and the upholding of cultural diversity?

The mass hysteria surrounding the recent interment of Richard III – the crowded procession and four-hour queues to see a wooden crate containing some bones – offers only the most recent example of the reverence we so unthinkingly pay to antiquity. Are we performing these plays simply because they are old? In a letter to Ellen Terry (who, as Portia, was playing opposite Henry Irving’s Shylock in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice), Lewis Carroll expressed his disapproval of the court’s final sentence that the Jew convert to Christianity: “Why should our ears be shocked by such words merely because they are Shakespeare’s?”

Christopher Marlowe’s play compels its modern proponents towards similar questions. When Barry Kyle directed The Jew of Malta for the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1987, he talked about his unease: “I read The Jew of Malta when I was a student and thought it was unrevivable. I find the issue of anti-Semitic drama and whether you should revive it very difficult.” Like it or not, the eponymous hero, Barabas, is “an infidel” with a “bottle-nose”, exploited, persecuted, ruined and murdered in the cause of theatrical entertainment.

But this is not the sanctimonious anti-Semitism of Chaucer’s Prioress, who describes the martyrdom of Hugh of Lincoln, butchered by Jews who entertain in their hearts “the wasp nest of Satan”. This is a pantomimic caricature which sees Barabas affect the disguise of a French lute player or, stretching all credulity (except that of the greedy friars to whom he promises his estate), a Christian convert. The brilliance of Marlowe’s text is the brazen confidence with which it punctures moments of horrendous prejudice with inane jokes.

There is something Larry David-esque about its reliance on Jewish stereotypes in order to serve its comic vision. As with David’s, Marlowe’s comedy is one of intense embarrassment, reliant on a sense of Jewish difference at the same time as it valorises the superior intelligence of its protagonist. This is anti-Semitic humour which insists upon the inferiority of its non-Jewish audience. Barabas is the adroit disciple of that most adept Elizabethan bogeyman, Machiavelli – hated and respected in equal measure, streets ahead of the incompetent Catholic (Ferneze) and Muslim (Ithamore) competition.

Machiavelli was the starting point for Justin Audibert’s sparkling production: Simon Hedger’s Machiavel entered under full house lights, in a T-shirt with the familiar red RSC logo, except it read RMC and, as the penny dropped, the audience giggled at the smaller point-sized “Royal Marlowe Company”. It was typical of the dark comic detail of this production. As Matthew Kelly’s Friar Jacomo welcomed the repentant Abigail (Catrin Stewart) into the Catholic fold and she kneeled in front of him, he bent down towards her and caressed her face, for just a little too long, in an alarmingly Savile-esque manner, his later hypocrisies nicely anticipated. As Ithamore (Lanre Malaolu) and Barabas (Jasper Britton) rested from their exertions of strangling an engagingly truculent Friar Barnadine (Geoffrey Freshwater) with his own rope girdle, he suddenly and unexpectedly rallied and began to struggle, so that their wading in to finish the job was almost a casual afterthought – a carefree brutality worthy of a Tarantino sequence.

Following the poisoning of the nunnery, Barabas and Ithamore met, their faces masked by long monastic cowls. As they solemnly made the sign of the cross, their shoulders started to shake as they were unable to contain their chuckling. This gave way to outright jubilation as they shed their robes.

There follows Barabas’ supremely vicious line: “There is no music to a Christian’s knell” and the speech ends with “Now all are dead, not one remains alive.” Typical of this production’s careful ear and delight in the play’s comedy, this became: “Now all are dead and [pause, just to make sure we don’t miss it], none [that is, nun] remains alive.” You could almost hear the audience groan!

Britton’s protagonist was a masterclass in timing. As he railed against Abigail for converting to Christianity (a ploy they are using to allow her to re-enter their house, expropriated and converted into a nunnery, in order to recover Barabas’ hidden booty), his dissimulation was splendidly gauged. He stood facing her downstage so that we could see his face. The Christians were upstage of him. “Child of perdition,” he scolded her, “and thy father’s shame.” Even as he was saying the line, he was egging her on with his expression, smiling and encouraging, every inch Machiavel’s disciple.

Given all the fleetness and comic gaiety, there were one or two bum notes. Ithamore’s congratulations on his master’s iniquity were oddly euphemised: the play’s “I worship your nose for this” became “I worship you for this”, as though the production had lost the courage of its convictions. As Barabas realises the dangers of power – “I am Governor of Malta; true,/But Malta hates me” – the ghost of his daughter sat next to him and spoke the rest of the speech. Given the defiant materialism of both the play and this interpretation of it, this sudden spirituality was awkwardly intrusive.

The shining sanctimoniousness of Ferneze’s (Steven Pacey) conclusion – “let due praise be given/Neither to fate nor fortune, but to heaven” – accompanied by the trappings of a Catholic anthem, demonstrated the deftness of Marlowe’s play and, in the main, this production. Over four centuries after it was written, The Jew of Malta, in the right hands, remains an odd and eminent mixture of offence and elation. One hopes the company will be sending tickets to Jeremy, Trevor and Dave.

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