“[T]here is no sin but ignorance,” that’s some of the wisdom Machiavel, who opens the scene in the Elizabethan play The Jew of Malta, will impart on the audience, which will be in for a few surprises in the upcoming Teatru Manoel’s production of the play. One of these surprises is that Machiavel, modelled after the famed forefather of realpolitik, will be played by Erica Muscat, a young theatre and film actress. And that’s not all that director Chris Gatt has up his sleeve for the spectators. Erica Muscat tells Eve about taking up two unusual roles in this production – and loving every moment of it.

A playfully mischievous expression briefly flashes in her face as she speaks about her latest embodiment: “This particular rendition of [Machiavel] by [playwright Christopher] Marlowe is from the image that the Elizabethans had of him […]. I get to say a lot of what I really think, but in reality I’d never get to say those things. I love cynicism up to a point, as it forces me to evaluate my own beliefs. Trusting your gut feeling is very important to human beings, but so is to ask, “But why?”, and Machiavel gives me that. He blatantly says what he thinks, and it’s very refreshing for an actor.”

Photo credit: Justin Mamo

This was not the role Muscat auditioned for, but she had it offered after a workshop-audition with the director. The actress admits always having wanted to work with Gatt – at least partly because of these bold, out-of-the-box choices he tends to make: “There are 50 million possibilities within one sentence, and my job is to find precisely what would work best.” In Marlowe’s plays, the plot is more central than the characters, so improvisation with the character’s gender does not derail the story. “I don’t think Marlowe would be rolling in his grave – after all, he wrote it for Queen Elizabeth,” the actress tells as she prepares to embody Machiavel.

Her second character is the vice-admiral of Spain, Martin del Bosco, who becomes Martine in this production. In the alternative history of The Jew of Malta, there is no Great Siege – which occurred after Marlowe started writing his play – and the grandmaster attempts to buy his way out from Ottoman invasion. Del Bosco discourages him from doing so and urges to challenge the Ottomans to a fight. Gatt, the director, decided to cast a woman in the role. “I always like when directors take that chance. There aren’t many good roles for women, especially in classical theatre – you get only one or two really great female characters,” Muscat comments, excited to play a women in such a high position of power.

“I’ve played those roles before,” she remembers. “For a woman it’s not unlike any other role you need to get into. It’s not like I’m playing a man – it’s a woman who has achieved a role that by men would otherwise be perceived as belonging to a man. I don’t spend too much time thinking that she’s a woman. I am in that role, I am the vice-admiral, so how does it affect this relationship? Hopefully the audience will experience that.”

This is becoming a specialisation of sorts, the young actress realises – it is the fifth time she lands roles written for men. She remembers working with a director who once cast her for a one-person show, based on Shakespeare’s sonnets, in a role that had been written as male – and didn’t tell the producers until the last moment. “Just see her – trust me,” he told the dumbfounded producers, and they later acknowledged their prejudice was wrong. “I didn’t even know there was a doubt,” she remembers.

Muscat believes her ability to balance feminine and masculine energies shows in the work she gets to do. “We all have masculine and feminine energy. Your sexuality and sexual preference are something entirely different. What it means is your feminine energy is a river running through, and the masculine energy is the riverbeds – it’s like a structure for emotion to pass by.” From very feminine Desdemona to balanced Lady Macbeth, all characters are varying combinations of the two, she considers.

“I was always a tomboy growing up.” Photo credit: Daiva Repečkaitė / Eve

She is confident that living up to the challenge depends on believing the playwright and the director: “If I’ve seen their work before and I like the work, we’re going to have fun.” As she gets comfortable with her characters, designers are working on costumes that will enhance the characters with a blend of Renaissance and contemporary elements to highlight how current the themes of the play remain to this day. Placing it in another era will make it familiar to the audience, but distant enough to explore the world the play creates in a “what if” universe.

“In The Jew of Malta, I don’t think anybody wins. In Marlowe’s case, he’s just on nobody’s side. But that’s not to say it’s an angry play – it was his way of dealing with the political and religious strife. [The play] is not anti-faith, it’s anti-religion. It’s against the belief that you should be blindly following a group of people – it’s fair to say that. It challenges all religions in the same space. This is something that audiences can use as an opportunity to establish their mindset – and then question it. It screams to me, today! And that’s why classic texts live on,” Erica Muscat reasons as she prepares to embody her two complex characters. In addition to contemplating the power of religion, she is also tackling some unusual challenges: “My character is a soldier, so I’m putting myself in a bit of a bootcamp regime. By the end of this, I need to do a pull-up.”

P.S. The Jew of Malta will be performed at Teatru Manoel on 5, 6, 7 and 12, 13, 14 October 2018. All performances start at 8pm; except for the October 6 performance, which starts at 6pm. Tickets at €25, €20 and €10; discounted tickets are available for students and senior citizens. Bookings on 2124 6389 or Classification 14+. This project is supported by the Project Support Grant, Malta Arts Fund – Arts Council Malta.