Your extreme right does me exceeding wrong…
– Christopher Marlowe: The Jew of Malta
Not actually a reference to last week’s national and district election results (unless you want it to be); but in all likelihood a twisted, academic allusion to Antigone. And yet “wretched Barabas”, the eponymous ‘Jew of Malta’, who proclaims the above, is not, in the end, solely a victim of downright racism (and, it has to be said, his own ineptitude), but what James R Siemon describes as his “unabashed materialism [and] self-proclaimed conscienceless egocentrism”: which, coupled with all parties’ Machiavellian “self-interest as a universal rule of political conduct” means maybe there are contemporary parallels to be inferred, after all….
No, Barabas is born to better chance,
And framed of finer mould than common men,
That measure nought but by the present time.
Besides, such political paranoia is not assuaged by witnessing the play’s constant barrages of hypocrisy: power, greed, and cunning, eclipsing any professed religious creed – a theme Marlowe had earlier invoked in Tamburlaine – whatever a character’s race or faith (Christian, Jew, or Muslim); nor the explicit Elizabethan animosity of “merchant ‘strangers’” (immigrants) with their “emergent capitalism” – obviously, as the modern trope goes, “comin’ over ’ere and takin’ our jobs”. However, Jasper Britton’s superb, full-ranging portrayal – despite our anti-hero’s rather obvious and barbarous flaws – often provokes a knowing sympathy (which he then mocks all “worldlings” for; and repudiates with increasing, uproarious and complex – finally self-defeating – savagery. However, although there are strong resonances, Barabas is far more vengeful than Shylock in the mass of flesh he seeks – but also then repeatedly, remorselessly exacts: usually at arm’s length).
Why stand you thus unmoved with my laments?
Why weep you not to think upon my wrongs?
Why pine not I, and die in this distress?
There are, though, obvious parallels with Shakespeare’s famous portrayal of anti-Semitism, its effects, and recourse to “the law” – and it is therefore fitting that, opening in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, the night I attended the Swan, was The Merchant of Venice. My feeling is that each play – however captivating and challenging: as The Jew of Malta indubitably is – will shed reflected light onto the other: making clear leitmotivs and variations we may not have quite expected; but also revealing (and projecting long shadows on) parts of the human condition we would, in real life, rather not confront. Perhaps this is what ‘Art’, in all its forms, is for…?
But what kind of ‘Art’ is this, anyway? TS Eliot proclaimed it “tragic farce” – but I believe it to be something so much deeper in its amalgamation of satire, revenge, melodrama, comedy and “the tragedy of a Jew, Who smiles to see how full his bags are crammed…”. Pathos runs hell for leather, hand-in-hand with great wit and plain speaking.
I dislike the improbability and buffoonery of ‘true’ farce: but there is a rationale – as well as a deeply-warped (psychopathic?) persona – driving Barabas’ crescendoing killing frenzy; and the result – as presented here, anyway – is, frankly, bloody funny! For example, introducing himself to his recently-purchased slave (and short-term, savage soulmate: “we are villains both…”), Ithamore (played with real aplomb, and great humour, by Lanre Malaolu, with possibly the best line of the night: “Was ever pot of rice porridge so sauced?”), Barabas paints a cool self-portrait, that, in many other plays, would have you squirming in your seat. Here, though, its inventory of increasing invective, delivered with utter self-possession and matter-of-factness – as if to say “if I wasn’t so flawed, you wouldn’t love me so much (and I don’t give a tinker’s cuss what you think of me, anyway: this is who I am)” – pulls you in so readily, that not only do you also suddenly see no wrong in such a noxious chopping list as he admits to (and is obviously proud of), you chuckle with glee as sin mounts upon sin.
As for myself, I walk abroad a-nights
And kill sick people groaning under walls:
Sometimes I go about and poison wells;
And now and then, to cherish Christian thieves,
I am content to lose some of my crowns;
That I may, walking in my gallery,
See ’em go pinioned along by my door.
Being young I studied physic, and began
To practise first upon the Italian;
There I enriched the priests with burials,
And always kept the sexton’s arms in ure
With digging graves and ringing dead men’s knells….
But mark how I am blest for plaguing them,
I have as much coin as will buy the town.
But tell me now, how hast thou spent thy time?
What goes around, though, comes around (for both the audience and, eventually, Barabas himself).
…and nothing violent,
Oft have I heard tell, can be permanent.
As a result, even four hundred years later, many of the text’s expressed social attitudes and delineated racial stereotypes are once more to the fore (that is, if they ever really dissipated). However – despite my attempts at forging ironic (yet aggrieved) links to modern statecraft – removed from the context and the mores of late sixteenth-century London, and writ so very large, it is difficult not to be shocked and unsettled by what could easily (simplistically) be read as endorsement of vicious prejudice. (Somehow, the escalating violence – much of it offstage – escapes parallel perspectival judgment.) It is due to the intelligence of both Marlowe’s incisive, intelligible text (oh, that he had lived to a ripe old age…) and the current production that I left the theatre intensely clear that this is not the case: convinced that bigotry of any flavour is poisonous to both despised and despiser. And always has been. Play with fire, and you will end up with more than burning fingers….
Whether the play criticizes, encourages, or simply portrays such intolerance, you may have to decide for yourself… – and, therein, I think, lies its subjective, subversive power. (The RSC’s run at the Swan Theatre ends on 8 September: so you have plenty of time to make your mind up!) Thoroughly entertaining, as well, though: from atheistic, pseudo-Machiavellian start – oh, boy, do I want an RMC T-shirt…
I count religion but a childish toy,
And hold there is no sin but ignorance.
…to ironic, devotional, anti-Machiavellian finish…
So march away, and let due praise be given
Neither to fate nor fortune, but to heaven.
If I have one complaint, it is that the play accelerates to this end. Earlier, the pacing – and great use of music (by Jonathan Girling: don’t be surprised if you suddenly become addicted to klezmer…) and stylized, balletic, haka-like fighting – is pitch-perfect (imaginatively directed by Justin Audibert); but we are not given time to contextualize Barabas’ spiral into hell. What we are treated, too, though, is an intelligently-realized stage (designed by Lily Arnold; lit by Oliver Fenwick); and some wonderful acting – not just Britton and Malaolu; but, particularly, Steven Pacey, with great authority as Ferneze; and Geoffrey Freshwater and Matthew Kelly as (“tonight, I’m going to be”) a pair of meddlesome monks.
No-one lets the side down: although Catrin Stewart, making her RSC debut as Abigail, needs to let her words speak as well as her face and actions – sometimes, methinks the lady doth project just a little bit too much. (She should learn well from Britton: whose voice varies from clear whisper; beautiful, booming baritone – who knew the man could sing so well?! – to dumbfounded falsetto. As the applause resounded, I also detected just a hint of Eric Morecambe’s cheekiness – such is the full-driven gamut of a remarkable performance: that will stay with me for a very long time.) Off to book another viewing…!