Master of Revenge

The RSC’s production of the thrillingly bloodthirsty The Jew of Malta has received rave reviews. We interview director Justin Audibert to discover more about his rendition of Christopher Marlowe’s most notorious work.

Intrigue, conflict and murder most foul: The Jew of Malta is the story of an extremely wealthy merchant, Barabas, who puts his formidable smarts to wicked ends after his estate is unfairly seized by a governor.

Set in a Malta cowering under the sword of the Ottoman Empire, as the ‘alien’ Jewish community is extorted and victimised, the time is ripe for a wronged man of extravagant cunning to make his terrible mark.

Like Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, where the titular merchant Shylock famously demands his ‘pound of flesh’, the play has often been met with accusations of anti-Semitism. But, as director Justin Audibert explains, it’s a far trickier, more compelling beast than that…

CH: There are certain parallels between The Merchant of Venice and The Jew of Malta. So how does Barabas stand up to Shakespeare’s Shylock – is he quite as nuanced a figure?

Justin Audibert JA: That’s a big question, and a good one – I think his litany of misdemeanours is much, much bigger that Shylock’s. Without wanting to give anything away, there are quite a few deaths and murders that he comes up with in quite ingenious ways. He doesn’t go to settle matters in court - he seeks revenge in purely personal and bloody terms.

So he’s obviously not quite as nuanced as Shylock. But what the production does is show you that he’s clearly been wronged – it doesn’t necessarily justify what he does, but you see the culture that he’s come out of, where there’s one set of rules for one people and a totally different set of rules for another – in this case, the minority of the Jewish community.

If his society were peaceful, then he would get on with being peaceful. But he’s humiliated and stripped of everything that he has, so he feels that he has no other recourse than to wreak his own revenge.

What makes Jasper Britton a great Barabas?

Several things. One is that Jasper is one of the best actors at talking to an audience that you can possibly imagine. He makes the audience complicit with what he does – he talks us through it, walks us through his choices – so you end up cheering him on even as he’s committing these awful acts.

The other thing is that Jasper thinks like lightning. The tricky thing is that with Shakespeare you see a character’s psychological development quite subtly – it gradually changes over time (and I suppose Shylock is a good example of that, in a way) but with Marlowe characters change on a sixpence, and Jasper’s nimble enough as an actor that you can 100% believe him doing one thing and doing something completely different a moment later, which is a difficult technical feat. He masters that, really.

In what ways might Marlowe’s Malta remind us of the social and political landscape of modern day Britain?

It’s interesting [when you hear] about the anti-Semitism of that time, because when we were rehearsing there were the Charlie Hebdo attacks, the attacks on the Kosher supermarket in Paris, and the release of a survey when 40-odd-% of people – even here in the UK – had expressed anti-Semitic clichés about Jewish people in some shape or form.

In a way in our society we understand, because it’s very prevalent in the media, the tensions between the Muslim community and the Jewish community. Actually, the roots of Christian anti-Semitism are kind of glossed over a little more, when there was this really prevalent idea that Jews kind of owed a debt because ‘they’d killed Jesus’. There was a lot of suspicion regarding Jewish culture, and the rules that prohibited them in certain areas of the community came from the idea that they were not equal to Christians. We were looking at that, and hopefully the audience will draw their own parallels.

It’s quite an underperformed play, perhaps because there’s this question: ‘Is this an anti-Semitic play?’ Do you think it genuinely is, or is it more satirical in its intentions?

I think it’s satirical of everybody’s prejudices. It’s anti-Semitic in the same way that it’s also anti-Christian as well. I don’t believe that all friars are lusting after virgins and sleeping with nuns, and I don’t believe that all politicians are total hypocrites who break their word and are only in it for the money – but I think those things happen within those communities, if that makes sense. It’s a play that deals with hypocrisy in a massive way, and I feel that in the production that we’ve tried to make – and you’ll have to judge this for yourself – it’s a play that deals with anti-Semitism rather than an anti-Semitic play.

At the same time, Marlowe probably never even met a Jewish person, and we wouldn’t ask his views on feminism any more than his view on anti-Semitism. I’m not saying that he wasn’t, in some way, anti-Semitic, I just think that there are more ways than that of reading the play.

There’s certainly more going on in it than that. So, what’s the significance of the prologue, where we have what appears to be the ghost of Machiavelli popping up in a RMC (Royal Marlowe Company) shirt?

That was an idea that literally came to me at 3.30am. When you’re directing a play, I believe you have to let the audience know what kind of play it is within the first 90 seconds of that play. I went to bed thinking ‘What would Marlowe do?’ and that was my answer at 3.30 in the morning when I swung up out of bed.

I wanted to keep the prologue because he’s talking about people who would do anything to claim power and to keep power. What will people do to keep power, influence and wealth? What hypocrisy will they use to hide their true desires? Keeping his spirit there was really important to me. It made it feel contemporary, and kind of mischievous as well. It’s done in houselights as a conversation with the audience, so they’re involved from the very beginning.

There’s lots of intrigue in the play – oodles of murders, plots galore – how did you manage all of the skulduggery on stage?

I’ve been quite a ruthless cutter. The running time of the piece is only two hours and twenty-five or something, including the interval, and the play would probably be three hours ten. I’m a bit of a believer in ‘less is more’, as long as the verse is intact. That’s the bit I really liked, making those kind of editorial decisions. Young people seem to love the play and find it very clear, so that’s a great sign.

Without wanting to spoil anything for readers who might not be familiar with the play, was there a scene that gave you particular delight in bringing to life?

It was a lot of fun poisoning the nuns. Creating those nuns as characters was great fun, and poisoning them was exceptionally good fun.

What about Marlowe’s work do you like?

This place has taught me a lot more about him. I think I’ve seen pretty much all his plays, but I hadn’t necessarily read them. I read a couple of books on him that were brilliant: Charles Nicholl’s The Reckoning, that’s all about his murder, and The World of Christopher Marlowe, by David Riggs, which was really informative.

It seemed to me that this was a man who was constrained by his time. He had a great big intellect, and he was really ambitious, had a great imagination…but he felt constrained by religion and by social morality and by the political situation of his day and by his ability to make (or not make) money. So that restlessness and intellectual curiosity led him to take work spying, to do coin counterfeiting, and led him also to the stage.

I think that anarchic mayhem is in all of his big protagonists – Tamburlaine, Faustus, Barabas. He’s thinking ‘What are the boundaries of human possibility?’ And I guess that’s really compelling. He makes brilliant parts for actors that they can drive through with real passion and energy. I guess there’s something really punky and anarchic about him that I find really compelling. I wouldn’t want to do Marlowe plays all the time, but I enjoy that kind of punchiness. It’s really exciting.

In any play, if you get a character that tells the audience he’s really going to mess things up, it’s always great fun to watch him do it.

Could you tell us about the design of the play?

Well, Lily [Arnold, set designer] and I quickly decided we wanted to set it slightly before Marlowe’s period. We thought about Malta, and what it would mean at that time – a kind of bulwark for Christian Europe against the Ottoman Empire. We were thinking of sand, stone, heat – a hot environment, and somewhere with a horizon, a threat that’s out there in the distance. And I guess that’s what created the aperture at the back that looks out at a threat outside. The Swan lends itself to a set as simple as you can make, really. I think it is better to keep it simple in there.

The reviews have been very good. What’s it like for you when a production is met with glowing praise?

You’re never 100% happy. I popped back in the last weeks – things have changed, developed, everything looks good. But you have to stop tinkering at some point or else you drive everybody nuts. What was lovely was at the press day, exhausted as I was, I felt proud of the show.

So what’s in the pipeline for you?

I’m doing a show that’s coming to the Cotswolds, there you go! I’m doing Flare Path for the Original Theatre Company, which is playing at the Malvern Theatres, I believe, and also the Theatre Royal in Bath, later on in the summer. It’s a beautiful play about fighter pilots and their wives in the Second World War.

Thank you, Justin.

Find out more and book tickets at the RSC's website

Photography reproduced by kind permission of the RSC.