After enjoying the roaring girls season so much at The Swan last year my friend R and I have been planning more Stratford visits, so Wednesday night saw us brave the traffic, baffling roundabouts, significant road works, and diversions which make the journey so interesting (it's a trip designed to baffle any but the most up to date sat nav, which ours wasn't).
When possible we aim to go on preview nights because they're significantly cheaper - cheap enough to make it feasible to see 3 plays over a season when at full price it might only be 1. In this case it was the very first night and the director opened proceedings by apologetically explaining his cast weren't entirely well so please to be kind to them. It soon became clear that Jasper Britton, playing the lead role, was very far from well which made his performance all the more impressive.
I love The Swan theatre, partly because of it's size; it's small enough to feel intimate - to encourage interval conversation with neighbouring theatre goers, and to never be far from the action which often spills out through the audience. I've never been disappointed by anything I've seen there and 'The Jew of Malta' was no exception. The only Marlowe I'm at all familiar with is 'Dr Faustus' which was a highlight amongst A level set texts, though only just more dramatic than the playwrights own story. The chance to see more of his work performed was far to good to miss.
In brief it turned out to be a good old fashioned blood bath. The Turks are demanding money from Ferneze the Christian governor or they'll invade. Ferneze decides to levy the cash from the Jewish population; if they don't willingly hand over half their worth then the state will seize the lot and this is what happens to Barabas who is understandably miffed and vows vengeance. He uses his daughter to help him recover some of his former assets, acquires a slave with an appetite for violent revenge to match his own, and sets the governors son against his daughters lover in a duel fatal to both. When his daughter, Abigail, realises what he's done she promptly converts to Christianity and becomes a nun. Barabas just as promptly poisons all the nuns including his daughter and then sets about disposing of the priest who heard her confession. Meanwhile his slave turned henchman is seduced by a courtesan into trying to blackmail Barabas who gets busy with the poison again. He then fakes his own death to prevent being hung before falling in with the Ottoman army and helping them sack Malta. As reward he's made governor but decides to betray them as well by plotting to kill the whole army. The previous governor who he has confided this plan to then betrays Barabas at the last minute, killing him off and regaining control of the island. There is never a dull moment.
Marlowe, who seems to have been something of an atheist, satirises the myths and superstitions surrounding Jews whilst making his Christians a deeply unpleasant lot. Barabas is a monster but one it's possible to sympathise with. Ferneze is almost as monstrous and far harder to find sympathy for. T S Eliot described The Jew of Malta as tragic farce, this production chooses to play it for laughs with Barabas something of a pantomime villain at times but there is a counterbalance in the number of times he's casually, though brutally, beaten and abused for being a Jew. Barabas' excesses are stage melodrama to entertain an audience with, the reality of everyday religious intolerance is not.
It's an almost ridiculously topical play which makes the decision to exploit the humour in it wise. Wednesday's audience were clearly having fun but our conversation on the way back (except whilst negotiating a particularly unexpected diversion that took us to the outskirts of Coventry) was all about the darker underlying themes so the point was obviously made.
Back in the theatre we both both found ourselves thoroughly engaged by the action - edge of the seat at times and no fidgeting which really is a compliment where those hard seats are concerned. There may have been some first night hiccups but it was an excellent performance (with particularly gorgeous costumes) which I whole heartedly recommend seeing.