Atrocity exhibition

Theatre - Kate Kellaway revels in the meanness of Marlowe

Ian McDiarmid looks like a Rembrandt portrait as the Jew of Malta. His face is like the most famous line from Marlowe's play: "infinite riches in a little room". But there is no denying that the play is anything but infinitely rich. It is about human meanness; it's a thoroughly nasty piece of work. It is not a tragedy nor yet a comedy. It exists cockily between the two. It plays for quick thrills and cheap laughs. Yet, like so much Elizabethan and Jacobean drama, the writing is freakishly undated, the satirical life in the play in no way stale. And at the Almeida, in a production directed by Michael Grandage, it gets a great run for its money.

Money makes Marlowe's world go round. Barabas, the Jew, is a grotesque for whom gold is dearer than blood, more precious even than his own daughter. We see him, in the opening scene, surrounded by money in what looks like a garden shed. He counts with automatic panache, grumbling about the tedium of the chore but flourishing his purses merrily. Later, he cradles and squeezes a recovered money-bag as if it were a resilient baby and squirms with delight. His voice ranges from high, strangled glee to low, slow reverie. McDiarmid plays Barabas as a man possessed: he is elated by his own wickedness.

There is nothing to distract us from Barabas. The set, designed by Christopher Oram, is simple in a way that recalls 1970s RSC productions. It is stark, monumental, a curved wall of yellow stone that complements the Almeida's brick. Barabas frequently appears on top of the wall, as if to press the point that he is king of his own castle. He is said to be the model for Shakespeare's Shylock. But he makes Shylock seem like a saint. He has no redeeming features. Yet it would not be correct to say that this was an exclusively anti-Semitic play. Marlowe has at least as much fun at the expense of avaricious Christians. The message is cynical but clear: everyone is corrupt. As Barabas himself makes clear: "It is no sin to deceive a Christian because they hold it a principle."

Abigail, the Jew's daughter, is an important presence in the play. I liked Poppy Miller's almost hysterical integrity in the role. She looks pale, stressed and pure - in contrast to everyone else. But she can deceive with the best of them, pretending to become a nun in order to re-enter her father's house as a spy. She is an excellent po-faced schemer, firmly belted into a chaste white dress. Barabas calls her the "lodestar of his life" but doesn't hesitate, only a few scenes later, to create a poisoned rice dish to polish her off. He has by this stage started to look deranged - a psychopathic weasel. He says to Ithamore as they stoop over the porridge together: "Let me stir it" (a line that nicely sums up his life).

The friars (Robert Demeger and Sidney Livingstone) look like stand-up comics with red complexions and popping eyes. But at least one of them will not remain standing for long, if Barabas has anything to do with it. There is no such thing as virtue here. There is an especially choice performance by Polly Hemingway as Bellamira, a courtesan who is past her first youth. She has an attitude problem: she can't stop striking them. She has a hilarious repertoire of siren poses. The extraordinary thing is, they work.

This is more than can be said for Marlowe's incredibly creaky plot; it jerks from one atrocity to another with no recovery time in between. When Abigail dies, vowing that she has turned Christian, the friar comments: "Ay, and a virgin too, that grieves me most." (The audience laughed at this duff joke, trivialising tragedy, just as much as they must have done in Marlowe's day.) We need as an audience to become like Ithamore, Barabas's slave. He revels in each new horror. The love-hate relationship between Barabas and Ithamore is one of the most interesting things about this production. In Ithamore, Barabas recognises someone like himself, someone who will stop at nothing. Adam Levy is excellent as the slave, celebrating his master but also learning from him, ready to betray him just as soon as he is able.

There is a seemingly insatiable appetite for Elizabethan and Jacobean drama now. At the beginning of The Jew of Malta, I found myself wondering why the Almeida was intent on disinterring it. But by the end I had to concede that, whatever else it may be, The Jew of Malta is an antidote to blandness. This is why we revel in the writing of the period. So much of it seems new-minted. The description of the two friars as "religious caterpillars" is priceless. But my favourite line is: "I hope the poison flowers will work anon." I love the haste, the plotting, the ludicrous toxicity of it. I am on the look-out for an opportunity to use it.

"The Jew of Malta" continues at the Almeida, Almeida Street, London N1 1TA (0171-359 4404) until 6 November

This article first appeared in the 18 October 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Will Peter secure peace in Ireland?