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Friday, 24 July 2015

The Jew of Malta Review

Amy Wilcockson is a 19 year old English student at The University of Nottingham, who took advantage of the RSC Key scheme to attend a performance of Christopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta in the Swan Theatre.

Having used the RSC Key scheme to see Henry IV Parts I & II and Wendy and Peter Pan, all of which were performed in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, I recently decided it was time to watch a production in the neighbouring Swan Theatre. After much deliberation, due to the strength of this season’s exploration of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, Christopher Marlowe’s A Jew of Malta caught my eye. As a fan of Doctor Faustus, I could not wait to see another of Marlowe’s works – and I was certainly not disappointed.
The Jew of Malta is a comic tragedy and a tragic comedy, a mix of religious hypocrisy, treachery and revenge, assisted by the talented cast, all of which gave immensely strong performances. The Machiavellian Barabas (the Jew of the title), played by Jasper Britton, had the audience in the palm of his hand with his wit and trickery, despite his treacherous actions and eventual sticky end! Lanre Malaolu’s performance as Barabas’ murderous slave Ithamore was similarly a devilish and fiery performance, only equalled by that of Catrin Stewart in the role of Barabas’ daughter Abigail, who finds herself betrayed and revenged upon by her unrepentant, unforgiving father who ultimately causes her – and many other’s – deaths.

Stand-out scenes included the shocking mockery made of Barabas by the Christian rulers of Malta; seizing his wealth, beating him and spitting on him – a condemnation that continued throughout the play, and that undoubtedly provoked the Jew of Malta’s terrible vengeance. The reality of Barabas’ evil nature came with the contest between Don Lodowick and Don Mathias, duelling for Abigail’s hand, ultimately causing both their deaths and beginning the chain reaction of murder and revenge prevalent throughout the rest of the play.

The unforgiving stark set, designed by Lily Arnold, emphasised the play’s harsh messages of racism and revenge, whilst it was simple enough to convey a variety of settings, including a courtesan’s boudoir and a nunnery through the innovative use of props. The trapdoors, pool of water and gangways into the audience from which the actors entered, were all used to create a sense of intimacy and confidence between the actors and onlookers, and indeed I found myself caught up in the tale and wishing the play had lasted for longer! Live music, including the haunting vocals of Anna Bolton and the cast created a sinister and religious atmosphere, aided by the period costumes and religious attire of many of the supporting cast.


Director Justin Audibert, in his debut directorial role at the RSC has overall created an intense and thought-provoking piece of theatre, which retains its relevance today, due to the rise in religious-motivated crimes worldwide, despite it being written over 400 years ago. The RSC strives to bring theatre to new audiences whilst emphasising the relevance of these performances to contemporary play-goers. The Jew of Malta, complete with its puns, asides and dramatic irony, certainly shows Audibert and the RSC have succeeded in this aim. Bringing world-class theatre of this high standard to 16-25 year olds for a minimal price is an incredible idea, and I cannot wait to visit the RSC again. My only problem is deciding which play I want to watch next!

BP £5 tickets are available for The Jew of Malta - book your ticket today.

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Othello at the RSC, 8/6/15

Hannah Piercy has just completed her degree in English Literature at Cambridge University. An avid theatre-goer and member of the RSC key scheme, Hannah has written theatre reviews for The Public Reviews, as well as written for and edited the Theatre section of Cambridge’s student newspaper Varsity.

Iqbal Khan’s production of Othello is a delight to watch. To begin a review by commenting on the set might be unusual, but Ciaran Bagnall’s innovative and beautiful design instantly stands out as exceptional. Ciaran Bagnall manages to create both a sparsity and a grandeur appropriate to the physical and emotional qualities of the Venetian setting. There was a visible stir among the audience as Iago (Lucian Msamati) and Roderigo (James Corrigan) stepped onto what appeared to be a rather small, unimpressive gondola, only for the iron grating of the floor to sink several inches, filling with water and bringing the set to life. Ciaran Bagnall’s design is beautiful, with its grand stone arches framing the stage, but it is also flexible and dynamic, and this potential is fully realised by Iqbal Khan’s production. From the Upper Circle, what was particularly impressive was how well Ciaran Bagnall and Iqbal Khan had harnessed the potential beauty the production might have when viewed from above.
Iqbal Khan’s production of Othello is also a delight to watch in a perhaps more surprising sense: it is incredibly funny. Not only Iago and Roderigo’s comic interactions, but Desdemona’s (Joanna Vanderham) witty speeches received peals of laughter. The lively response of the audience matched the liveliness of the performance onstage: a rap battle staged between the Cyprian and Venetian soldiers was particularly memorable, encapsulating the contemporary vivacity the company lend to Shakespeare’s play. Yet, while comic, the rap battle also brought out one of the crucial thematic interests: race.

The decision to cast Lucian Msamati as a black Iago might be expected to diminish Othello’s (Hugh Quarshie) racial isolation, but Iqbal Khan’s production brought this out in other ways. The explicitly racial terms of the rap battle brought the play into vivid proximity with contemporary racial issues. This topical engagement was extended by the emphasis on war. Othello might not be thought of as one of Shakespeare’s most military plays (like, for instance, Coriolanus), but Iqbal Khan thoroughly draws out its potential violence. The inclusion of torture, inflicted first upon a character whose face was hidden, then played out with Othello torturing Iago (another interesting complication to a relationship where Othello is normally the victim), brought a sharp end to the laughter of the first half and made for uncomfortable but powerful viewing. The second half, indeed, developed the tension of the play as both comedy and tragedy: the transition from laughter into psychological disturbance was brought out perfectly by Akintayo Akinbode’s expressive score. Sound is woven into the torture scenes too, as the clicking of a staple gun and the whirring of a drill send shivers down the spine. Iqbal Khan’s production draws out a sense that the horror of the play is not just the corruption of Othello, but the corruption of society in the face of war: a stark and a vital message for today’s audiences to consider.

The subtlety and complexity Iqbal Khan brings to bear upon Othello are fulfilled by wonderful performances throughout the cast. Joanna Vanderham makes an arresting Desdemona: devoted and innocent, yet also witty, lively and strong. Lucian Msamati and Hugh Quarshie were perfect as Iago and Othello, the bond of their shared race complicating the manipulative sway Iago holds over Othello to lend a new dynamic to a pairing well-explored in theatrical history. This version of Othello is simply not to be missed, developing a well-known and well-loved Shakespearean tragedy in a new, sharply contemporary light.

BP £5 tickets are available for Othello. Book your tickets now.