Christopher Marlowe, Tamburlaine. Presented at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre, October 2005.

Siobhan Keenan
De Montfort University

Keenan, Siobhan. "Review of Christopher Marlowe, Tamburlaine. Presented at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre, October 2005." Early Modern Literary Studies 11.3 (January, 2006): 16.1-15<URL:>.

Directed by David Farr. Designed by Ti Green, Neil Austin (Lighting), Jason Barnes (Sound). Music composed by Keith Clouston. Movement directed by Jonathan Monks. Fights directed by Terry King. With Greg Hicks (Tamburlaine), Kolade Agboke (Usumcasane), Stephen Kennedy (Techelles), Chuk Iwuji (Theridamas), Rachael Stirling (Zenocrate), Katy Stephens (Anippe/Olympia), Jeffery Kissoon (Bajazeth), Vinta Morgan (Mycetes/Cosroe), David Hounslow (Soldan/Orcanes), Tim Chipping (Cosroe/King of Jerusalem), Will Tacey (Almeda/Meander), Ann Ogbomo (Zabina), Robert Vernon (Ortygius), John Wark (Agydas/Calyphas), Ben Lambert (Basso/Celebinus), Theo Cowan, Kieran Rowley (Young Boy).
  1. Although it was often regarded as un-playable in the modern era, the twenty-first century has seen several British revivals of Christopher Marlowe's ground-breaking Tamburlaine the Great plays, with performances at the Rose Theatre (September 2003), the Globe Education Centre (March 2004) and, most recently, at the Bristol Old Vic (October 2005), where David Farr's dynamic new adaptation formed part of the theatre's season of Young Genius.

  2. Like most previous adapters, Farr conflated Marlowe's two plays, streamlining them to produce one three-hour long performance (with an interval of fifteen minutes). As well as cutting lines within scenes, Farr omitted characters and sub-plots in order to focus on Tamburlaine. This included cutting the King of Arabia in Part I, and the episodes involving Orcanes, King of Natolia, and the treachery of the Christian army led by Sigismund, King of Hungary in Part II.

  3. The staging of the production was similarly stripped down. Most of the action took place against a simple backdrop consisting of a large metal, trapeze-style frame at the rear of the stage with a series of wooden pillars on either side, each suspended from the flies and hung with costumes. Music, sound effects, and changes in back and spot-lighting marked scene breaks and mood shifts. On-stage an assortment of dark rectangular wooden boxes were variously arranged to serve as benches, tables, treasure chests, thrones, a bed, and Zenocrate's hearse; a small wheeled cart provided a platform from which Tamburlaine could display his captured gold in Part I and became his king-drawn chariot in Part II; and a large cube-shaped cage, placed stage-right, was drawn forwards for Bajazeth's use in Part I, and for his son Callapine's prison in Part II. Smaller props, including a mixture of period items (such as eastern crowns and swords) and modern accessories, such as a petrol can, an empty fuel drum and a wheelbarrow (for Tamburlaine's book-burning pyre in Part II) were brought on as and when required.

  4. This juxtaposition of the period and the modern was mirrored in the production's costuming: historical eastern outfits were worn over contemporary combat-style trousers and t-shirts or vests, and complemented by black army boots. Thus, in Part I, Greg Hicks's Tamburlaine first appeared wearing a knee-length sheepskin jerkin over black trousers and a black t-shirt, before removing the sheepskin to reveal a gold armoured waistcoat which identified him as a shepherd-turned-warrior. Having gained the Persian crown, Hicks exchanged his armoured vest for a gold caftan, later swapping this, too, for a red, and then a black, gown during the siege of Damascus. All the time Hicks's modern clothes were visible underneath.

  5. Such juxtapositions of the historical and the modern served to draw attention to the fact that the audience was watching a play, and were in keeping with the production's theatrically self-conscious approach to Tamburlaine. This revival made no attempt to disguise the theatricality of the performance; on the contrary, it drew attention to its artificiality, opening with the whole cast on stage, putting the final touches to their costumes, before a spotlight picked out Mycetes (Vinta Morgan) and the first scene between him and his brother Cosroe (Tim Chipping) began. Actors continued to change costumes in view of the audience throughout; there was no routine darkening of the stage to camouflage prop rearrangements; 'dead' characters simply got up and walked off-stage at the end of their scenes; and groups of cast members remained on-stage when not performing, as in Keith Hack's 1972 Edinburgh Festival revival of the play. The latter parallel was perhaps no coincidence, as Farr's cast included a veteran of Hack's production: Jeffery Kissoon (Bajazeth at the Bristol Old Vic, and one of Hack's three Tamburlaines in 1972). Although one might expect this Brechtian approach to alienate or distance the audience from the play and its protagonist, paradoxically it rendered both more compelling, emphasising the theatricality of Tamburlaine's heroic persona and his career of power.

  6. The production was not wholly modern in its staging style. Like Keith Hack, David Farr drew on the symbolic staging traditions of the Renaissance theatre and was sensitive to Marlowe's use of visual symbolism. This meant retaining most of Tamburlaine's symbolic costume changes, including at the start of Part I (when he casts aside his shepherd's garb to reveal a suit of armour) and during the siege of Damascus. It also meant dressing the ill-fated Virgins of Damascus in white, as indicated in the text (Part I, V.2.1). But, in a clever twist, the white sheets worn by the actors were symbolically suggestive of death as well as virginal innocence and purity, covering them entirely, like shrouds. Marlowe's use of symbolic costuming was expanded to other characters. The parallels between Turkish Emperor Bajazeth and his son Callapine were reinforced by dressing them in matching costumes: while imprisoned, Callapine wore a dirty white shirt over his black trousers, as did Bajazeth when encaged; and when freed Callapine assumed the same rich blue-striped caftan worn by his father as Emperor. Symbolic staging techniques were employed as well, including for most of the off-stage battles, which were generally represented through sound and light effects and characters frozen in fighting poses.
    The doubling necessary for the production was, in some cases, symbolically pointed, too. The repetitive nature of Tamburlaine's career of conquest was suggested by the doubling of several of the shepherd's opponents and victims. Thus the actors who played Cosroe, Bajazeth, and the Soldan of Egypt in Part I returned in Part II to play the conquered kings harnessed to Tamburlaine's chariot; and John Wark played both Agydas, who commits suicide on Tamburlaine's order in Part I, and Calyphas, the son whom the protagonist kills in Part II.

  7. Even more intriguing were some of the symbolic connections suggested by the doubling of Tamburlaine's female characters, although in this instance the performance I watched was a little unusual as the indisposition of the lead actress (Rachael Stirling) meant that the cast's two remaining women (Katy Stephens and Anne Ogbomo) shared all the main female roles. Katy Stephens's doubling of Zenocrate and Olympia proved especially fascinating, highlighting the parallels between the two characters, and suggesting that Zenocrate might be regarded as one of the victims of Tamburlaine's career along with Olympia.

  8. Stephens's performance in the role of Zenocrate was revelatory in other ways, too. For instance, she made sense of the Egyptian princess's seemingly sudden transformation from resistant prisoner into loyal acolyte and accomplice of Tamburlaine by presenting her as a strong and passionate woman, who once seduced inevitably supported the shepherd as ardently as she had previously resisted him. At the same time, Stephens highlighted Zenocrate's importance as a counterpoint to Tamburlaine and his warrior ethic. Her soliloquised lament about Tamburlaine's ruthless pursuit of 'slippery crowns' at the end of Part I (V. 2. 294) was delivered seriously and offered a compelling challenge to the Scythian shepherd's heroic conceptualisation of his career. It also lent an added irony and poignancy to her subsequent coronation, heightened by the evident discomfort of Stephens's Zenocrate at this moment: she dutifully accepted the crown and ascended the throne watched by a devoted Tamburlaine, but as the spotlight froze on her, marking the end of Part I, her expression was anxious rather than triumphant.

  9. In a world in which women were otherwise marginalised and disenfranchised, Stephens showed Zenocrate to exercise a unique power, too. Nowhere was this more apparent than during her death-scene (Part II, II.4). Here, Stephens's Zenocrate was very much in control, as she directed her family in their farewells and sought to reconcile a disconsolate Tamburlaine to her loss. As the audience witnessed a Tamburlaine vulnerable for the first time, Zenocrate emerged as the stronger character and the one mortal with the power to dismay the protagonist.

  10. Greg Hicks's interpretation of Tamburlaine was similarly thought-provoking. Alternately menacing, inspiring, and sadistic, Hicks invested Marlowe's eloquent shepherd with a psychological depth and complexity that readers and theatre critics have often thought the character lacked. His Tamburlaine was a thinker as well as a doer, pausing to reflect several times before acting or speaking, as when his son Celebinus offered to have his arm cut as a sign of bravery (Part II, III. 2.135). The text suggests that the son's offer immediately prompts Tamburlaine to refuse it, but Hicks made ready to wound his son, only relenting after a few moments pause and implied thought.

  11. His Tamburlaine was a man of feeling, as well, Hicks making the shepherd's love for Zenocrate central to his interpretation of Marlowe's hero. He insisted that the audience recognise in Tamburlaine a passionate lover as well as a ruthless warrior. This was emphasised not only through his distraught reaction to Zenocrate's death, which saw him collapse and weep, but through the decision to have Tamburlaine die whispering Zenocrate's name, rather than on the words 'For Tamburlaine, the Scourge of God must die' (Part II, V. 248), as in the text. Such moments were disconcerting, briefly inviting pity and lending humanity to Marlowe's brutal protagonist.

  12. In similar fashion, Farr and Hicks emphasised Tamburlaine's mortality. Farr cut many of the allusions to Tamburlaine being the scourge of God and chose not to suggest a connection between Tamburlaine's daring of Mahomet and his sudden distemper at the end of Part II, while Hicks fore-grounded the physicality of the hero's fatal illness, throwing up onstage and collapsing several times during his attempts to outbrave death.

  13. There were similarly provocative interpretations of some of the play's supporting characters, including Chuk Iwuji's Theridamas. Although consistently loyal to Tamburlaine, Iwuji's Persian General was no unquestioning henchman. During the banquet scene at Damascus, his Theridamas looked unhappy with Usumcasane's mistreatment of the defeated Turkish Empress, Zabina, and was serious, rather than mocking, when he observed that Bajazeth and Zabina would be better fed than taunted (Part I, IV.4. 34-5). For the first time, one glimpsed the possibility of dissent from within Tamburlaine's ranks.

  14. John Wark's take on Calyphas, Tamburlaine's battle-shy son, was memorable for similar reasons. Rather than being a straight-forward coward, his Calyphas was a sceptical pragmatist with no wish to participate in his father's battles not only because he did not want to die but because he was not persuaded by Tamburlaine's heroic rhetoric. While his brothers strove to out-do each other in their readiness to join their father in his bloody pursuit of crowns, he smirked (Part II, I.4.); and when he heard the sound of the off-stage battle between the forces of his father and Callapine he spoke mockingly of the war and his brothers' probable deeds (Part II, IV.1). That he was not simply cowardly was reinforced during his final confrontation with Tamburlaine: although he did not fight back when his father attacked him, Tamburlaine's entrance from the battle did not cause Calyphas to hide or cower; on the contrary he initially continued to play cards and ignored the warrior. John Wark's Calyphas thus became another of Part II's resistant characters: characters who demonstrate the ultimate limits of Tamburlaine's power by refusing to be seduced or persuaded by him.

  15. Overall, such interpretations made for a morally challenging and absorbing production which showed that Marlowe's pioneering plays and their contentious protagonist still have the power to thrill and disturb theatre audiences, contrary to popular critical opinion.

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© 2006-, Matthew Steggle (Editor, EMLS).