Review: The Jew of Malta


Richard Lutz takes a seat for this tragedy at The Swan in Stratford

Christopher Marlowe was the golden boy of Elizabethan theatre when Shakespeare was still learning his trade. And if he hadn’t been killed in a pub fight in 1593, maybe he would have outshone the man from Stratford.

In Marlowe’s Jew of Malta, none other than Machievelli opens with an acerbic prologue to set the tone. And the grand master of Renaissance political science quickly advises the audience that religion is “a child’s toy.”

In that light, Marlowe sets the tone. Both Christianity and Judaism, at odds in this bloody tragedy, are seen as basically shoddy crutches in which to  justify  hated filled prejudices and persecution.

The story is dark and violent. Barabas, a Jewish financier in Malta, is forced to give up his fortune by the Christian rulers to bribe the Turks not to invade. He wants to get even with the island’s lords after he is both robbed of his wealth and humiliated – spat at, in fact, by the Christian Maltese courtiers.

It  explains why Barabas is so viciously contemptuous of his overlords and actor Jasper Britton plays him as a sharp-witted clever man who both respects his own religion – so badly persecuted in late medieval times – and decries the rank hypocrisy of the ruling class which hold sway.

With the lead character shown as being so badly treated, the play is not so much anti-Semitic but, in its own way, probing the roots of anti-Semitism.

Religion, Marlowe seems to point out, may be child’s play. But it can also be dangerous.

Director Justin Audibert strangely plays it for laughs a bit too often and it seemed the audience wasn’t too sure about this tack. At times, it doesn’t really sit right. But the headlong cynical drama of a fallen man who craves revenge (and violence) is still the spine and the power of the story.

Britton is  helped by good support: Catrin Stewart, as his decent daughter trapped by duplicity, stands out. Also supporting is TV’s Matthew Kelly, once a leading light in variety entertainment, who has left the television schtick clearly behind, to take on a nastier role as a creepy friar.

The Jew of Malta opens and closes with distinctive kletzmer music, so redolent of Yiddish culture, and the lighting and costumes add colour and a medieval light to a stage that is filled with venom and  violence.

Until 8th Sept/Tickets: 0844 800 1110.