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Vengeance and religious hypocrisy in renaissance Malta

MADC takes on a canonical play and modernises Christopher Marlowe

Barabas, portrayed by Mikhail Basmadjian explains the moves the Jewish community are going to take to Ithamore (Joseph Zammit) left, and Don Ludowick (Philip Leone Ganado) in The Jew of Malta. Photos: Matthew Mirabelli

Barabas, portrayed by Mikhail Basmadjian explains the moves the Jewish community are going to take to Ithamore (Joseph Zammit) left, and Don Ludowick (Philip Leone Ganado) in The Jew of Malta. Photos: Matthew Mirabelli

Theatre
The Jew of Malta
Manoel Theatre

It strikes me as incredible that it has taken this long to stage a production of Christopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta at the Manoel Theatre and yet, here it is – finally doing a much-needed run thanks to this MADC and Teatru Manoel collaboration, which sees some of the local acting circuit’s more familiar faces come together in a show that in typically revolutionary Marlovian style brings genres together and is at times tragic, comic, vengeful, and scheming.

All the while the play also criticises the hypocrisy of the power-hungry and brings together the three great monotheistic religions in a general indictment of all three. This in spite of the fact that Christianity in the guise of Catholicism is supposed to be the over-arching force for good given the cultural context.

However, while Marlowe’s Barabas the Jew (Mikhail Basmadjian) is the central character and main antagonist, he often comes across as both villain and victim, so the motivations of his adversaries in this plot-driven play are equally dubious.

Director and lighting designer Chris Gatt, who was also in charge of set design with Ray Farrugia, did a great job in bringing the play to a contemporary audience thanks in part to the set, which reflects the Renzo Piano designs for the entrance to Valletta, as well as the lighting effects, use of the hydraulic stage for scene changes; together with Denise Mulholland’s costume design.

Worth watching on several counts

A play like this requires several fight scenes and duels, which were expertly coordinated by Jacob Sammut, so that the technical aspects of the play were slick and well-structured, while the doubling involved in the portrayal of minor characters, transitioned smoothly from one scene to the next, with little disconnect between one iteration and another.

Basmajian’s Barabas, was a deeply engaging portrayal of a man living in a society which abhors and rejects him at worst and tolerates him at best, while he does the same to those in authority. Marlowe manages to infuse his character with a duality which makes him both manipulative, vindictive and comedic, scheming and ruthless, but often justified in his ire.

His daughter Abigail (Naomi Knight) at first is the dutiful and loving daughter that society and her father expect her to be and colludes with him in his plan to retrieve some of his riches following the confiscation of their household, but is ultimately horrified by her father’s actions and reviles him to the point where she denounces their religion and converts in earnest to Christianity.

Barabas with his daughter Abigail (Naomi Knight).Barabas with his daughter Abigail (Naomi Knight).

Her rebellion infuriates Barabas, who cuts off all ties with her and ultimately does not care that his actions will directly bring about her death. Knight’s Abigail was also strong and credible, adding poignancy to a relationship already marred by her father’s thirst for revenge.

It is amply clear that Marlowe chose to focus on the religious hypocrisy of the Catholic Church as well as Judaism and Islam Ferneze, the Governor of Malta (Anthony Edridge), Friar Jacomo (Nathan Brimmer) and Friar Bernardine (Edward Thorpe) are all eager to benefit from the spoils of war and the sequestration of Barabas’s fortune.

The latter two end up becoming figures of ridicule and victims of the Jew’s scheming, while being exposed as inept schemers themselves. Conversely, Ferneze, solidly portrayed by Edridge, is double- crossed by Barabas and double-crosses him again in the end, in a scene that is too uncomfortably similar to the trapping of the Jew in a gas chamber (albeit of his own device), showing the ruthlessness of the Governor and consequently, that of his religion.

Brimmer and Thorpe worked extremely well together and their dynamic balanced the ridicule and hypocrisy that Marlowe wished to portray very well.

On the Muslim front, I found Waylon D’Mello’s effete Prince Selim difficult to understand at times as his diction could have been clearer, but the effect of the spoilt and rather weak prince was clear – all the better supported by the implacable Callapine (Joe Depasquale).

Joseph Zammit’s well-rounded Ithamore, Barabas’s slave hates Christians as much as his master, but is lacking in guile and is too self-centred and foolish to see that he is being manipulated by the money-hungry courtesan Bellamira (Maxine Brimmer) and her pimp Pilia Borsa (Helen Osborne) these two expose yet another aspect of the Macchiavellian frame of mind which the Renaissance prized so much.

Erica Muscat’s well-executed Martine Del Bosco, Vice Admiral of Spain comes across as the most honourable in a collection of opportunistic, power hungry leaders, while jealousy and the power of possession in love is explored in the fatal rivalry for Abigail’s hand between Don Mathias (Alex Weenink) and Don Ludowick (Philip Leone Ganado) – the latter becoming convenient collateral damage in Barabas’s vengeful plan against Ferneze.

The Jew of Malta is worth watching on several counts – the most disturbing being that it resonates very strongly with contemporary audiences because the nature of the character’s dealings is uncomfortably close to home – hence the clever transposition of time.

On another count, this is a well-constructed and presented version of a complex canonical play which deserves being showcased in the land where it is set.

The Jew of Malta is being staged at the Manoel Theatre tomorrow, Saturday and Sunday at 8pm.

Classification 14+

Tickets may be obtained by calling 2124 6389 or online at www.teatrumanoel.com.mt

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