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Review: Queen Anne ★★★★ – Judi Herman doffs her cap to the team that brings to life the reign of a little-known queen and her most influential courtiers

Queen Anne: Emma Cunliffe and Natascha McElhone © Manuel Harlan/RSC The British do love plays about their monarchs, especially when they show the Royals as real people and when there are resonances for now in the politics of the time. Helen Edmundson’s new play, Queen Anne, is a fine addition to the canon, exploring the reign of a Queen, perhaps known best for the furniture style named after her – and even that was after her death.

Queen Anne was the second daughter of James II. She came to the throne in 1702 after the death of her elder sister Mary, joint Monarch with William of Orange, Anne having been designated as their successor. Despite seventeen pregnancies by her husband, Prince George of Denmark, only one son survived infancy and he died aged just 11, so Anne died without any surviving children and was the last monarch of the House of Stuart. The Act of Union between England and Scotland was signed during her reign and Marlborough’s army defeated the French and Bavarians at the Battle of Blenheim.

Edmundson’s device here is to reflect events through the extraordinarily passionate friendship of Anne (Emma Cunliffe) with the formidable Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough (Natascha McElhone), a powerful friend and a dangerous enemy to everyone, including the Queen.

Edmundson also manages to make the power politics in a Protestant England at war with Catholic France entirely clear and fascinating and it paints a lively portrait of England’s power couple Sarah and her husband, that great general the Duke of Marlborough, (Robert Cavanah), who get to build the huge and grandiose Blenheim Palace as a reward for his victory at the eponymous battle.

Inevitably, there’s a lot of exposition, especially in the first scenes of the play. Happily Edmundson hits on the idea of bringing this to life with witty, well-realised set pieces using the scabrous satire of the pamphlets, prints and songs of the period. They’re presented here by a sparky Daniel Defoe (Carl Prekopp) and an urbane and worldly-wise Jonathan Swift (Tom Turner). A cruelly grotesque ‘Queen Anne’ padded out to look heavily pregnant, recalls the puppets in Spitting Image and pamphlets and broadsheet ballads shower the stage with paper, eagerly gathered by the public and so providing a useful, eye-opening parallel with the spread of stories by 20th century mass media and going viral in the age of the internet.

The play is at its best when exploring the consequences of’ ‘Mrs Morgan’s’ fervent, consuming and part-requited love of ‘Mrs Freeman’, as Anne and Sarah did in fact call each other; and the rising of the star of a new lady in waiting in the monarch’s life, the ambitious but genuinely caring Abigail Hill, later Masham (displaying ferocious intelligence and determination in Beth Parker’s quietly vivid performance), at the expense of the almost recklessly over-ambitious Sarah.

Emma Cunliffe give a fine portrait of a Queen disillusioned by events, yet eventually strengthened by the regal authority she needs to lead the nation. Edmundson writes a wonderfully lusty Sarah, in love with life, power - and her husband John Churchill; and Natascha McElhone realizes her wonderfully, splendid in her overweening self-belief and belief in the power she has over Anne. It’s really no surprise when she overreaches herself and the Queen’s stony rejection of her bewildered and angry erstwhile favourite is a powerful climax for both women. There’s strong support from Jonathan Broadbent as the politically astute Tory Robert Harley and from Richard Hope as Lord Chancellor Godolphin, bent on intrigue and in league with the Duke of Marlborough, a robust Robert Cavanah.

Director Natalie Abrahami orchestrates the private and the public to give satisfying light and shade and never lets the action drop into cod restoration comedy, even in those scurrilous ‘supper club’ scenes. And Hannah Clark’s design incorporates a simple truck four-poster bed that keeps the stage clear for action, so matters move along as fast as the exposition will allow. The authentic period costumes are attractively set off by elaborate hairstyles for the women and periwigs for the men that make you see why men affected them and what women might have seen in them. Edmundson’s play is a fascinating study of the power of love and the love of power and a delightfully lively and engrossing way to get to understand a monarch at such a turning point in our Island story.

By Judi Herman

Queen Anne continues runs until Saturday 23 January, 7.30pm & 1.30pm, £16-£37 at The Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, CV37 7LS; 0844 800 1110. www.rsc.org.uk

 

 

Review: Volpone – Judi Herman gets guilty pleasure from Henry Goodman’s wickedly good performance in the title role of The RSC's Volpone

Volpone, RSC, 2015 © Manuel Harlan Ben Jonson’s scabrously and cruelly comic take on greed premiered to huge acclaim in 1605, the year of the Gunpowder Plot, and has remained his most popular play. Although it shares its exotic (especially in Jacobean England) Venice setting with two other plays in the current Royal Shakespeare Company season – The Merchant of Venice and Othello – the RSC is actually pairing it with Christopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta (and a lesser known play, John Ford’s Love’s Sacrifice) calling them "contemporary takes on classic plays exploring the idea of the outsider".

Of course the RSC is also reviving The Merchant of Venice this season (which we reviewed), which could also be considered a classic exploring the idea of the outsider, as Shylock, though not the title role as in Volpone and The Jew of Malta,  is considered such a central character.

It is perhaps a relief that Jonson didn’t choose to cast his title character in this study of greed, the supremely greedy Volpone, as a Jew. His ruthless schemes to acquire more wealth and precious objects are based around his brilliant masquerade as a childless invalid on his deathbed seeking an heir to whom to leave his wealth. And they are, if anything, more ingenious than Barabas’s machinations in Marlowe’s play and like Barabas, he starts the play by taking the audience into his confidence. But Volpone is the wily fox not the wily Jew and pretty well everyone else in the play is as greedy and morally bankrupt as he is. Plus most of the other characters also have Italian names that flag up their types to the audience straightaway – like the greedy would-be heir, Corvino, the Crow and Mosca, Volpone’s assistant and partner in crime, The Fly.

More than 15 years ago, Henry Goodman played Shylock at the National Theatre, in a production of The Merchant of Venice by Trevor Nunn. I am not alone in considering Goodman’s Shylock to be the finest, the most complex, the most moving that I have ever seen. Now he is reunited with Nunn and actor and director find themselves back in Venice, once again in a modern dress production of a classic dark comedy. This time though, instead of playing a man who is an outsider cast in that role by his fellow citizens because of his race and religion, Goodman plays a man who is supremely comfortable in his skin. He’s positively gleeful in the Machiavellian masquerade that means he can never be himself with anyone except the circle of minions who are in his pay and in his confidence, Mosca his private secretary, and his dwarf, his eunuch and his hermaphrodite. But then his very best friends are his golden treasures and he simply can’t get enough of them.

Volpone, RSC, 2015 © Manuel Harlan

Like his earlier Shylock, this is a stellar performance by an actor at the height of his powers, working wonderfully with the director with whom he goes back such a long way. Goodman’s is a marvellously warm stage presence, with a vigorous energy and an irresistible twinkle in his eye, even if it is perhaps the glint of avarice. When he takes the audience into his confidence at the start of the play, it’s quite hard not to be bowled over by all that enthusiasm – and not to be impressed by the close tabs he keeps on the stock market, with an LED display of share prices constantly updating above his head – courtesy of Stephen Brimson Lewis. The British set designer has a spectacular sense of how to use the Swan Theatre’s roomy thrust stage with light and airy glass display cases containing the treasures and vital props and scenery, like Volpone’s sickbed, complete with drips and heart monitor, arriving smoothly and swiftly on stage as needed.

Goodman’s transformation, with the aid of his staff, from, frankly, a rather sexy millionaire clad in designer silk pyjamas and dressing gown into a pathetic, dying invalid "sans eyes, sans teeth, sans everything" is masterly – a fantastic and very funny coup de theatre.

As in The Jew of Malta, it’s hard to feel any sympathy for most of these greedy types. It’s also great to see so many members of The Jew of Malta playing almost parallel roles here. So Matthew Kelly and Geoffrey Freshwater, who played a pair of greedy clerics in Marlowe’s play, here get to play a pair of equally greedy clients and would-be heirs of Volpone. They are so unscrupulous that the one is not above prostituting his own wife when it’s implied that would further his chances to inherit and the other is prepared to disinherit his son for the same reason. Both men seem physically crooked and diminished by their lust for riches, while Volpone and his acolyte Mosca (a performance of terrifically sly and energetic intelligence from Orion Lee) seem rather invigorated by theirs.

Steven Pacy, the pusillanimous Governor of Malta, enjoys a great comic turn as the preposterous gentleman traveller in Venice, Sir Politic Would-Be, whose name speaks for himself. He is more than matched by his vacuous wife, the superbly brassy Annette McLaughlin, who's all big hair and extensions, tiny tight frocks and dizzyingly high heels, channelling Kim Kardashian and TV Reality show The Only Way is Essex followed by her long-suffering personal cameraman and girl assistants at all times. So no pearl of wisdom, no handy make up tip is lost to her Youtube followers; and with selfie stick at the ready so no photo opportunity is lost either. Again great use is made of huge onstage screens blowing Lady P up to a lot more than life-size (video designer Nina Dunn). Colin Ryan is great fun as Sir Politick’s nemesis, Peregrine (or ‘pilgrim’), a much more savvy, young American backpacker, complete with dreadlocks and iPad.

Volpone, RSC, 2015 © Manuel Harlan

Nunn and his creative team work seamlessly and wondrously together to build a production so fluid and so intelligent and so right for this time of social media and self-publicising, intrusive media scrutiny – and unbridled corporate and individual greed and inequality – that it’s hard to see how it could be bettered. There is a breath-taking moment when Volpone realises his deceptions are catching up with him. The bustling action of the court to which the invalid has been called to testify freezes around Volpone and his household, who are thrown into sharp monochrome relief by Tim Mitchell’s masterly lighting. It’s a real moment of truth and as fine as any I can remember from any of Nunn’s extraordinary body of work.

The whole is fabulously enhanced by Steven Edis’s gloriously appropriate music, directed by John Woolf on keyboards, with Andrew Stone-Fewings (trumpet), Andrew Waterson (guitar) and Kevin Waterman (percussion). In particular a speech about Pythagoras’s potentially problematical theory of the migration of souls becomes a bravura rap performed by Jon Key’s Nano the dwarf, Ankur Bahl’s Androgyno the hermaphrodite (a sexy Eurovision winner Conchita Wurst lookalike) and Julian Hoult’s Castrone the eunuch – all lovely movers! And I should finish by paying tribute to Ranjit Bolt’s sparkling script revisions which are spot on. This really is a must see.

By Judi Herman

Photography © Manuel Harlan

Volpone runs until Saturday 12 September. 7.30pm & 1.30pm. £8-£40. Swan Theatre, CV37 7LS; 084 4800 1110. www.rsc.org.uk

Review: On her third helping of The Merchant of Venice, Judi Herman has a discomfiting but enthralling evening

The Merchant of Venice production photos_ 2015_Photo by Hugo Glendinning (c) RSC _MER_157 Don't let the buggers grind you down. Try to come over as laid back. They wear a strange eclectic mix of what they see as achingly trendy, or sharp city wear, set off with flamboyant footwear in bright – too bright – poster colours. So wear a dingy blouson over an old cardigan and keep your dignity, simply wipe off their spit when they show their contempt for you. This could be what's going through Shylock's mind in Makram J Khoury's finely calibrated performance, which positively radiates a relaxed gravitas.

It is to be hoped that Khoury, the popular, award-winning Palestinian-Israeli actor didn't base it too closely on his experience as a man caught between two worlds in his native country. Certainly when Christian Venice shows its contempt by spitting on Shylock's "Jewish gabardine", the gasp of horror that runs through the audience is even more of a shock wave than the similar audience reaction when this treatment is meted out to Jonathan Pryce's dignified Shylock at Shakespeare's Globe.

Khoury’s trajectory is frighteningly clear here, from distracted father outraged by his daughter Jessica’s's elopement and her profligate spending and disregard for her dead mother's ring, to vengeful would-be killer. Given the special disgust displayed towards him by Jamie Ballard's alarmingly volatile Antonio, it's hardly surprising he seizes the opportunity to whet his knife and prepare his scales in open court, now entirely indifferent to what the hostile Christians make of his behaviour.

This is the third time this year that I have seen this problematical play and each time I am struck by how little stage time Shylock shares with Jessica. Shakespeare magnifies the awkwardness of what today would be dubbed their dysfunctional relationship by showing so little of it onstage. And, in the few moments they do share together, Jessica is in turmoil over her imminent elopement and the need to deceive her father to make her escape.  Here director Polly Findlay and designer Johannes Schültz trap Scarlett Brookes’ awkward, gawky Jessica at an impossibly high window in her father’s house. So there even less connection as he leaves for the dinner with his new creditor Bassanio that will give her the window of opportunity she needs to escape with her Christian lover Lorenzo (James Corrigan), as well as her father’s jewels and ducats.

Indeed Findlay, sharing her vision with Schültz and costume designer Anette Guther, builds an especially alienating dystopic Venice, where it’s easy for the audience to share Shylock’s discomfiture. Belmont, wealthy heiress Portia‘s nearby estate, similarly offers little in the way of refuge, even to its owner and her chosen guests from the city, let alone the foreign suitors at whom this Venetian lady pokes fun. The audience is reflected in the huge brass mirrored wall atop which Jessica appears and there is nowhere to hide on a thrust stage with only a mysterious (and perhaps more distracting than hypnotic) pendulum on which to rest the eye, joined briefly later by three symbolic ‘caskets’ lowered from above.

There is certainly nowhere to hide in Venice or Belmont, from creditors in the city, from the whim of a dead father, controlling his daughter’s choice of husband from beyond the grave. And there is nothing to distract from the actors, who first take the stage from seats on Brechtian benches at the rear. If anything, Guther’s flamboyant, jarringly disparate costumes are the set dressing. Patsy Ferran’s intelligent Portia might be grateful to don sober lawyer’s garments, after the hard poster colours of the little shift dresses that seem to be current Venetian jet set fashion here.

There is, though, a shock awaiting her at court. For at the centre of Findlay’s reading of the play is what turns out to be a love triangle, where Portia sees what the audience has known from the start – she must share her new husband Bassanio (Jacob Fortune-Lloyd) with Ballard’s tortured (and I don’t mean by Shylock), depressive Antonio, who claims him with a desperate kiss as he awaits his fate. It certainly makes sense for Portia to channel her discomfiture and anger into her inspired and literally blood-chilling case against Shylock. So this ‘comedy’ becomes even more of a problem play, if Portia and Bassanio’s wedded bliss looks uncertain before their marriage is even consummated.

Meanwhile, Khoury’s now coldly focused, implacable Shylock makes the most of his day in court, almost whetting his knife on Antonio’s bare chest. No wonder Antonio screams and cringes. And though Shylock loses everything, he is perhaps more incredulous than broken and makes it clear that playing for sympathy - from court or audience – is beneath him.  Even he is upstaged by a tsunami of banknotes raining down on the court – effective but perhaps heavy-handed symbolism.

The Merchant of Venice production photos_ 2015_Photo by Hugo Glendinning (c) RSC _MER_148

By the time Portia and her faithful waiting gentlewoman Nerissa (an especially warm and literally supportive performance from Nadia Albina – these girls are close) return to Belmont, Jessica and her Lorenzo do not look entirely comfortable with each other either. Jessica seems almost aggressive as she and Lorenzo top each other with their references to pairs of mythical lovers who might have shared such an enchanted night as theirs, alone on Portia’s estate while its mistress is away at court. The magic should have been enhanced by a floor gradually lit by candle after candle filling the stage, the effect doubled by that mirror wall. But their brash brightness is too obvious a visualisation of Lorenzo’s description of "the floor of heaven thick inlaid with patines of bright gold"; the patina on the brass of that mirror would have done nicely. Perhaps the only real beauty in the evening is provided by the choristers, "young-eyed cherubim" indeed, to quote Lorenzo again, singing Marc Tritschler’s unearthly plainsong from the heights of the set. It’s a particularly discomfiting and alienating reading of this difficult play and though the creative vision is clear, it is perhaps too much of a straitjacket for the drama.

By Judi Herman

The Merchant of Venice runs until Wednesday 2 September (broadcast live in cinemas on 22 July). 7pm & 1pm. £5-£60. Royal Shakespeare Theatre, CV37 6BB; 084 4800 1110. www.rsc.org.uk

Review: Oppenheimer – A detailed bio-drama about the father of the atomic bomb chills and exhilarates in equal measure

Oppenheimer, press 2014 © Keith Pattison To make a nuclear bomb, you assemble enriched uranium into a supercritical mass that starts an exponentially growing chain reaction. Tom Morton-Smith’s play assembles the team building the first nuclear bomb and shows the chain reaction that ensues amongst them. And just as a bomb needs a trigger, the “Manhattan Project” needed J Robert Oppenheimer.

The play questions whether the physicists were mad scientists who should have known better than to participate in such a project and how far they felt justified at the time, even if subsequently doubting the genie they had unleashed that cannot be put back in the bottle.

Morton-Smith sees the events through the lens of Oppenheimer, intertwining his intellectual struggle with the physics and his emotional struggle with the need to abandon his early and fervent embrace of communism, which Oppenheimer saw as the only remedy to Fascism, in order to appease the US authorities. He had after all been schooled at New York’s Ethical Culture School, where many of his fellow pupils were also secular Jews and where he discovered the ethical teachings of Judaism. And later he was engaged by other ethical texts and scriptures including the Bhagavad Gita (a 700-verse Hindu scripture in Sanskrit), which stayed with him all his life and Morton-Smith has him quote it at the end of the play.

J Robert Oppenheimer (the J stands for Julius) may have been born in Manhattan, but as the son of German-Jewish immigrants, he was acutely aware of the fate overtaking Europe’s Jews, especially as the US scientific community welcomed an influx of eminent Jewish physicists seeking refuge from the Nazis. The list of characters in the play is in part a roll call of these brilliant fugitives, most of whom would go on to win Nobel Prizes. In addition, the young prodigy had studied under (Jewish-born) Max Born in Göttingen in Germany in the 1920s, gaining his PhD at age 22. So he was much exercised by the rise of fascism in Europe.

Oppenheimer, press 2014 © Keith Pattison

After a brief lecture from Oppenheimer, with the audience cast as students, Morton-Smith starts the action with an upbeat party scene on the Berkeley Campus at a Communist fundraiser for International Brigade members off to fight fascism in Spain. It’s the sort of party at which anyone who’s anyone in the intellectual and academic community must be seen. Morton-Smith’s brilliance is to cut between the party and the students and academics in full creative flight as they learn and teach in the lab – using the stage floor as a chalkboard on which they feverishly scribble theorems and theories. Even the chronically unscientific members of the audience (among whose number I count myself) immediately get the feel of how engrossing and exhilarating the pursuit of scientific knowledge and discovery must be for members of the scientific community. This works especially well as a counterpoint to the party segments – all choreographed with huge panache by Scott Ambler.

Everyone in this community is aware of the work of German scientist Werner Heisenberg and his Danish-Jewish mentor Niels Bohr in Europe (as brilliantly imagined in Michael Frayn’s play Copenhagen). Is Bohr making a stand against letting Hitler get anywhere near the bomb? Does Heisenberg dread the ‘fall-out’ from The USA getting there first? Well, clearly in the USA they see it as a necessity to get there first and scientists are under intense pressure to do so. But Morton-Smith imagines, with the feel of chilling authenticity, not only the pressure but also the febrile excitement of these extraordinarily focused (often one-track) minds as they realise they are nearing a breakthrough, albeit one that will prove deadly to millions.  The detachment with which the boffins discuss the bombs they call Little Boy and Fat Man and what they are capable of, with a matter-of-factness about the numbers of Japanese likely to be sacrificed, is frighteningly convincing.

John Heffernan brilliantly inhabits the persona of Oppenheimer, mesmerisingly charismatic from the moment he engages with the audience at curtain up. He embodies the struggles and contradictions in the man – a womaniser with “a core of cold iron” – with a wife and mistress; scared that he has the scientific ability “to murder every last soul on the planet, yet at the same time a leader who expects to be followed. And indeed he is the magnet that attracts a huge number of scientists to join him at Los Alamos to work on the Manhattan Project.

Oppenheimer, press 2014 © Keith Pattison

Morton-Smith creates wonderfully authentic communities and he plays up the friction between the unruly scientists and the military with their, ahem, 'military' precision at Los Alamos to terrific and rather comedic effect.

Morton-Smith’s portraits of Oppenheimer’s women are especially complex. There’s Catherine Steadman’s mercurial manic depressive Jean Tatlock, the mistress who checks in and out of his life, in her element rallying the intellectuals for the communist cause. And Thomasin Rand’s wonderfully vivid Kitty, another bright and frustrated female intellect, who leaves her previous husband to marry Oppenheimer, only to find herself reluctantly kicking her heels though not her alcohol habit through pregnancies before and during her stay at Los Alamos.

Angus Jackson directs with panache a large cast in a production that sweeps effortlessly from those cocktail parties in Berkeley to the then empty plain of Los Alamos, thanks to designer Robert Innes Hopkins, whose costumes – especially for the women – are both authentic and stunning, and the action is heightened by Grant Oldman’s exhilarating score played live by a superb six-piece band directed by Jonathan Williams, and that organic choreography by Scott Ambler.

By Judi Herman

Oppenheimer runs until Saturday 23 May. 7.30pm, 2pm (Wed/Sun only). £25-£49.50. Vaudeville Theatre, 404 Strand, WC2R 0NH. www.vaudeville-theatre.co.uk

Review: The Jew of Malta – Bracingly amoral violence on the island of Malta (circa 1565)

The Jew Of Malta, Swan, Stratford-On-Avon, Press 2015 © RSC The different faiths are rubbing along together until politics and money get in the way and then all sides justify their actions as religious duty and malicious antisemitism provides a rationale for action. Not the Middle East today but Malta circa 1565 in Marlowe’s play, The Jew of Malta.

Here Malta is ruled by the Knights of St John (Knights Hospitaller) under Governor Ferneze, ostensibly as an outpost against the Ottoman Turks, although Ferneze is happy to pay the Turks protection money not to be invaded by them. Barabas is the richest merchant in the region but Ferneze plunders his fortune to pay off the threatening Ottomans. The Christian Knights justify taking his money – as a Jew, Barabas is cursed and sinful. He is understandably indignant: “What, bring you Scripture to confirm your wrongs? Preach me not out of my possessions.”

This is evidently a revenge tragedy – the dominant motive is revenge, here for a series of very real injuries. But Marlowe’s play goes beyond revenge, satirising religious hypocrisy, statesmanship and the human condition. We know where Marlowe stands when the Prologue, in the person of Machievel(li) says, “I, Machievel, count religion but a childish toy. 
And hold there is no sin but ignorance.” No one individual or community’s stupidity or vices are spared Marlowe’s ridicule and criticism in what might be the earliest film noir script.

Because this injustice is the trigger for Barabas to embark on a road to hell paved with anything but good intentions. Nobody – Christian, Turk, or even Jew – is safe from his increasingly bloody revenge, especially once he finds a kindred spirit in a newly-purchased slave Ithamore, and together they revel in ever more ingenious methods of murder and even mass slaughter.

At first sight, Marlowe’s play, with its eponymous anti-hero Barabas (whose namesake is the criminal released by Pilate instead of Jesus, at the behest of a Jewish mob according to the Christian Gospels), looks even more uncomfortable viewing for a Jewish audience than The Merchant of Venice. And it seems like a worryingly timely revival in the light of recent antisemitism. But 16th-century Malta is a bear pit where Turks and Christians fight indiscriminately and Marlowe allows Barabas to have the stage to himself to confide in his audience before they get to meet any of the island’s other amoral schemers (including a brace of villainous friars) who are, after all, after his money – or his fair daughter Abigail. And even before Barabas appears, his gleeful Machiavellian plotting comes with the endorsement of Machiavelli himself in that prologue.

The Jew Of Malta, Swan, Stratford-On-Avon, Press 2015 © RSC

Director Justin Audibert’s exhilarating revival points up Marlowe’s vicious humour and intelligence with Jasper Britton’s ruthless Jew as its poster boy. It has all the colour and sweep of a Renaissance painting, thanks to designer Lily Arnold’s glorious vision. Her staging is simple – marble-like steps sweep down from an upper level to the lower thrust stage which has as its focus a trough of water that proves wonderfully useful. And she fills the space with an entrancing palette of colour on costumes that swirl around the place, enhancing Lucy Cullingford’s choreography and in their turn enhanced by Oliver Fenwick’s lighting.

Audibert’s cast clearly enjoy creating equally colourful characters, led by Britton’s frighteningly practical and fearsomely intelligent Barabas, and Lanre Malaolu’s gleeful Ithamore, revelling in his promotion to partner in crime. Geoffrey Freshwater and Matthew Kelly, as those two wicked friars, make as gleeful a pair of plotters as any on the Renaissance stage. There’s attractively seductive work from Beth Cordingley’s avaricious courtesan, and Catrin Stewart makes a feisty Abigail, hand in glove with her father until… Well, that would telling, you’ll have to go and see it to find out!

The terrifc ad hoc klezmer band has added value for those in the know. The pre-show music is traditional wedding fare, ‘Chosen Kallah Mazel Tov’ ('Good Luck to Groom and Bride') and the show opens with another Jewish wedding staple – Barabas leads the cast singing ‘Erev Shel Shoshanim’ ('Evening of Roses') from the Song of Songs, in the popular setting by Yosef Harar and Moshe Dor (timed well for the production’s early April opening as it is part of the Passover Service too). And throughout the show Gareth Ellis’s musicians bring their own colour to the action, thanks also to Jonathan Girling’s original music.

Does it all leave a bad taste in the mouth though, as the action reaches its apocalyptic climax? By that time, everyone has behaved badly and Barabas is not the only one to face retribution. So however Marlowe’s contemporaries reacted, modern audiences are no more likely to burst into gleeful laughter than they would at the climax of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd.

By Judi Herman

The Jew of Malta runs until Tuesday 8 September. 7.30pm & 1.30pm. £5-£45. Swan Theatre, Straford-On-Avon CV37 7LS; 084 4800 1110. www.rsc.org.uk