Jasper Britton (Barabas)
Jasper Britton (Barabas)
© Ellie Kurttz

Marlowe's The Jew of Malta, a black and bitter farce in which a wealthy and punitively taxed financier, Barabas, embarks on an orgy of sectarian revenge ("Some Jews are wicked, as all Christians are") during the famous Turkish siege of Christian Malta in 1565, predates Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice by several years in the 1590s.

With anti-semitism on the rise again in Europe, the question is: does the Royal Shakespeare Company, in reviving both plays in Stratford this summer, fan the flames or douse them?

Both plays were written for an Elizabethan London from which Jews were banned and while there's a certain amount of "bogeyman" finger-pointing in both, neither suggests that Christians occupy the moral high ground. In Marlowe, it's Islam who's the real enemy.

Shylock is stripped of his assets, and his religion, at the end of The Merchant. Here, Barabas is robbed of his estate and threatened with Christianity at the very start: there's a ten-year tribute to be paid to the Ottoman marauders and his mansion is converted to a nunnery. Barabas himself is subjected to public baiting, beating and spitting.

Director Justin Audibert, making a fine RSC debut, lays out the play - which he's cut, quite heavily - with admirable clarity on a terraced setting by Lily Arnold with a Mediterranean blue sky, but not the sun-baked, labyrinthine white walls of a great Ralph Koltai setting for the RSC's first revival of this play in 1964 (Clive Revill, then Eric Porter, played Barabas).

Jasper Britton's upfront and bustling revenger is a hilarious open book - "I walk abroad a-nights and kill sick people groaning under walls; sometimes I go about and poison wells..." - with no more emphasis on his own semitism than an ironic indication of his skullcap when he feels the opposition has forgotten his identity.

Using his daughter, Abigail (Catrin Stewart), as a deadly pawn, and assisted by his scurrilous slave Ithamore (Lanre Malaolu), he sets up a fatal duel between the governor's son, the pantalooned booby Don Lodowick (Andy Apollo) and Abigail's own choice of lover, Don Mathias (Colin Ryan, a disconcerting lookalike for Harry Styles of One Direction).

Barabas retrieves his hoarded treasure from the nunnery - where Abigail has become a nun, twice - before wiping them all out and providing us with a rare spectacle in which the sound of music is that of puking noviciates in their death throes.

And all the while, the clash and clamour of the conflict is matched by that of Marlowe's savage, simple verse; this isn't yet the Marlowe of the mighty line, but the blasphemous swagger of a genuine troublemaker.

There are fawning priests - "two religious caterpillars" - played with odious sanctimony by Matthew Kelly and Geoffrey Freshwater (the latter garrotted and left stiffening on the street), a scheming courtesan (lascivious Beth Cordingly), raging Turks with helmets and scimitars and the double-dealing antics of the governor Ferneze himself, played with a wonderful dash and smarmy brio by Steven Pacey.

The play is dispensed with a tone of insouciant relish, and most of that stems from Britton's outlandish but always sympathetic, very funny performance. In a way, it's a shame he's not playing Shylock as well, but he's certainly set the bar very high for acting levels throughout the company this season. Next week: Antony Sher in Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman.

The Jew of Malta runs at the Swan Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon until 8 September 2015