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Steven Pacey in The Jew of Malta - Review by Clare Juland

Steven Pacey in The Jew of Malta
Saturday 27th June 2015 at The Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon

Review by Clare Juland

The Swan Theatre is a very pleasant and intimate venue with the stage occupying the central area. This allows the audience a good all-round view and I’ve come to enjoy most those productions that allow the audience to almost be a part of the play through the use of this staging arrangement.

The Jew of Malta, according to my theatre programme, was penned in the late 1500’s by Christopher Marlowe. It is also widely accepted that the story influenced William Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice. The great age of the piece has in no way dulled its power or relevance and it was performed to an excellent standard by all members of the cast.

The main character, a Jewish merchant called Barabas, played with gusto by the talented Jasper Britton, is a very interesting individual who is described officially as ‘Machiavellian’. I would say he has some gripping moments, witty rejoinders and outright ferocity in equal measure. I regarded him to be an eclectic mix of cold-hearted, double-crossing and revenge-driven sadist one moment, and pitiful wretch the next. If you get excited by danger and are prepared to take the risk, he’s your man - but don’t leave your purse on the dresser, if you get my drift.

I even found myself comparing Barabas to Avon, perhaps more on the cold, scheming, “I’m out to get what I can for myself” side. Though on reflection, I actually think there’s more of Servalan in him than Avon. Elements of both perhaps?

Without wishing to give away too much of the plot, the story centres on the threat of invasion and destruction of Malta by the Turks of the Ottoman Empire, who can only be described as accomplished extortionists. Their elaborate costumes, oversized headwear and sharp weapons of state mask a darker side that would make your modern day debt collector run for cover.

Having set down their challenge before the Maltese Governor Ferneze (Steven Pacey), the Turks are persuaded to accept a deferment to the payment of ‘tribute’. Ferneze sets about raising the cash to keep Malta free from harm. This he achieves by targeting the wealthiest citizens, most of whom are from the Jewish community. At this point, I’d like to touch on the irrefutable racist traits displayed by many of the characters. But I would also say that the play manages to achieve a sense of justice, albeit one tinged with revenge. Come the end, I felt the plot had demonstrated that neither trait is pleasant or helpful.

Steven got into his part with relish and I could sense that playing a dubious character, but one who has a certain element of respectability, has clearly been enjoyable for him. His costume is quite elaborate too, as can be seen from the splendid production photos. Steven was required to engage in a sword fight during the scene when the Turks return. I noted, though, that he wasn’t in the thick of it, which was left to younger members of the cast. Fair enough, they were ‘going at it’ quite a bit.

It would be unfair not to mention Matthew Kelly, who played one of the Friars. I had not seen him in a serious acting role before, and although his part was fairly minor, he gave a solid performance. I am also grateful to him for taking the photo of me with Steven afterwards! Thank you, Matthew!

Closing note: the drummer in the ensemble back stage can be a bit enthusiastic, and if like me you’re prone to leaping skyward at sharp and loud noises, be warned!

Production photos by The Royal Shakespeare Company
Photo of Clare and Steven by Matthew Kelly


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