Jasper Britton as Barabas and Catrin Stewart as Abigail in 'The Jew of Malta'. Photo: Ellie Kurtz/RSC

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“How sweet the bells ring now the nuns are dead!” Christopher Marlowe’s protagonist Barabas is not exactly sweetness and light. He is, in fact, about as reliable as a well-greased corkscrew wrapped in a nine-pound note. That’s hardly unusual for Jewish characters in Elizabethan/Jacobean drama. Marlowe’s twist is that he gives Barabas ample reason to behave as he does: revenge against the Christians who persecute Jews unmercifully and him in particular with savage glee. (We see him being beaten and spat upon as well as having his entire wealth seized.) He may be a wicked Jew, but neither the Christians nor the Ottoman Turks are any better. In this, and in his daughter who deserts him and converts, he is considered a significant influence on Shakespeare’s creation of Shylock a few years later, although it is also possible to see the strategy in both cases as having your anti-Semitic cake and eating it.

The role seems to attract a particular strain of intelligent actor. On the play’s last major British outing back in 1999, Ian McDiarmid played Barabas; here, Jasper Britton combines a lively current of smarts, swifter and more irreverent than the characters around him, with a deep vein of emotion. His two or three minor line fluffs on press night seemed due not to a lack of thought but to the momentary loss of himself in the intensity of feeling.

The Stratford directorial debut of HighTide festival associate Justin Audibert nips along and hits the right note of what T.S. Eliot, when writing about the play, called “tragic farce”. As well as Barabas’s murderous stratagems, we see Matthew Kelly and Geoffrey Freshwater as a couple of clerics whose sanctimoniousness evaporates the instant they scent a few thousand crowns in the offing; Lanre Malaolu as Barabas’s Turkish slave seduced out of his secrets by drink and a pretty but devious face (Beth Cordingly); and Steven Pacey as Ferneze, the Maltese governor who disposes of Jew and Turks alike by turning Barabas’s proposed double-cross into a triple. This is one of Marlowe’s lesser plays, revived only irregularly, but Audibert and Britton show that racism and hypocrisy never go out of fashion.

To September 8, rsc.org.uk

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