Say what you will about Ian McDiarmid, this gifted actor does nothing by halves. The sense of a boundless, even manic, extroversion bursting his wiry framehas long been a McDiarmid-Almeida Theater constant, serving him brilliantly in Moliere (“The School for Wives”) and Jonson (“Volpone”) and rather exhaustingly in Gogol (“The Government Inspector”) and, yes, Moliere (“Tartuffe”).
As Barabas in “The Jew of Malta,” the little-seen Christopher Marlowe play whose volatile subject matter nonetheless means that everyone has opinions about it, McDiarmid is both amazing as well as somewhat wearing, as if even to pause for breath would be to puncture the text. The result is a headlong canter through the play that T. S. Eliot famously called “a black farce,” as it might be performed by a high-adrenaline Scottish version of Jackie Mason.
There’s more than a hint of Mason, in fact, to McDiarmid’s accent, which finds this mercurial ringmaster sounding as if he had arrived at Christopher Oram’s surprisingly workmanlike set (a rather cramped wall town) by way of the Lower East Side. Stacking coins with zealous glee while confiding in the audience (McDiarmid permits himself an excited “woo!”), he’s our best friend but the Maltese citizenry’s worst enemy — a man not above dispatching a pair of no-good friars or even his own daughter, Abigail (Poppy Miller), in order to avenge himself amid a society that has no time or room for a Jew.
Sound like Shylock? Inevitably, notwithstanding a conclusion that finds Barabas condemned to inhabit what in this production resembles a Damien Hirst installation. And there are those who regard Marlowe’s 1589 text as a dry run of sorts for Shakespeare’s “Merchant of Venice” seven years later. Both plays present their Jewish antiheroes’ apparent misdeeds as little more than the natural reaction to the social miscreants in their midst. (In “Jew of Malta,” Barabas isn’t any less moral than the Christians that surround him; he’s merely wilier and more of a cut-up.)
The crucial distinction, though, is one of tone. While Shylock remains a figure of infinite dignity and weight, Barabas exists on the knife edge of caricature. That perch is one McDiarmid adroitly straddles for the most part, until credibility gives way to the feeling that — for whatever reason — he has stopped trusting the play and is simply kidding it along.
To that end, one laments a director, Michael Grandage, who dampens down still further what scant reflection exists in the text. (Meanwhile, there are unexceptional hints of a gay attraction between Barabas and Ithamore, his zealous sidekick.)
That’s too bad, since McDiarmid has the acting muscle to lay bare the price exacted by Barabas’ own showmanship. Early on, there’s the intriguing suggestion that Barabas is tiring of his own shtick, preferring instead the direct appeal of a simple command like “let him have it,” during which he drops the Catskills inflections.
Elsewhere, the ample supporting cast bustles noisily about, making little impression as a variety of dupes, vamps and duplicitors united only in their failure to agree on a common pronunciation of Barabas’ name. It’s as if they (and who can blame them) know that the evening is in essence a one-man show as played by an actor so tantalizingly over-the-top that it’s almost sinful.