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Review: Gruesome and funny - RSC's The Jew of Malta

L-R Geoffrey Freshwater, Jasper Britton, Matthew Kelly in the RSC's The Jew of Malta. Photo by Ellie Kurttz

Step aside Richard III you have a rival: Barabas, the Jew of Malta. And sorry to say it, your highness, but I think he might just steal your Machiavellian crown. In fact Christopher Marlowe's play opens with a speech by Machiavel (Simon Hedger) which should have been a clue as to what was to come.

I was Jon Snow going into this (I knew nothing) and what unfolded was a brilliantly gruesome black comedy.

Barabas (Jasper Britton) is rich from money lending and Ferneze (Steven Pacey) the governor of Malta needs a cash tribute for the Emperor of Turkey. Tribute is of course the polite 16th Century way of saying extortion. Ferneze decides to tax the Jews rather than the Christians to raise the tribute. When he complains all of Barabas' money, valuables and home are seized.

While Barabas can't stop Ferneze he can take revenge, and revenge is something he delivers with a Machiavellian flare and gruesome flourish. No-one, not even his own daughter, is immune to his plans and manipulations. All are pawns and collateral damage if necessary with Barabas one step ahead of all those who want to divert him from his purpose.

Barabas might be a bad Jew but in picking on the Jewish community at the beginning of the play Marlowe also exposes the prejudices of the Government and the hypocrisy of the Christians. The Catholic church is satirised with greedy and lascivious priests and willing nuns. I couldn't help thinking that the final outcome was more of a political ending by Marlowe to serve the audience and monarchy of the time rather than a natural conclusion of the satire he'd created.

The last thing I saw Jasper Britton in was playing the king in Henry IV and it is always a delight to see actors in such contrasting roles. As Barabas he has such energy and the sort of evil charm that reminded me a little of the Heath Ledger's The Joker in The Dark Knight.

Director Justin Audibert's production is just brilliant, darkly comic fun and full of energy and Britton had a much deserved spring in his step as he danced off stage.

You can catch it until September 8 at the RSC's Swan Theatre in Stratford Upon Avon and it is two hours and 10 minutes long plus a 20 minute interval.