Tamburlaine, Parts 1 and 2

Christopher Marlowe

Theatre for a New Audience, New York

From 01 November 2014 to 04 January 2015

Review by Philip Fisher

The prospect of spending 3¾ hours in a theatre watching the progress of a highly driven, murderous Scythian King might not sound appealing but Michael Boyd, late Artistic Director of the RSC, creates a thrilling and at times amusing production of Marlowe’s rarely performed classic.

In achieving this, Boyd has condensed the two plays down from a running time that could be close to twice as long and then injected an aesthetic that might at times seem familiar to those that enjoyed his History Play cycle some dozen years ago.

The theatre itself is a remarkable building in Brooklyn, reputedly costing the earth and devoted to serious, usually classical drama. The auditorium is reminiscent of the Dorfman (formerly Cottesloe) at London’s National Theatre, configured as a wide thrust.

The stage is black and bare, with props kept to a minimum. However, percussionist Arthur Solari, given as large a kit as he could ever have dreamt of utilising, plays an integral part in the drama, delivering an awesome soundscape to enhance the action.

In this space, viewers witness the progress of Tamburlaine the Great from early days in Persia, ruled by a “witless” King, played by Paul Lazar, who would have taken the role of a Fool in Shakespeare rather than a monarch.

Having defeated him, Tamburlaine, played with drawling wit and vigour by John Douglas Thompson, takes on an even tougher task, emulating Richard III by wooing the enemy in Merritt Janson’s Zenocrate and winning her. Eventually, she falls in love and bears him three children.

Most of Part 1 though consists in the hero marauding across the known world unseating kings and taking their crowns and territory with bloodthirsty alacrity.

The archetype might be Chukwudi Iwuji as Bajazeth. The actor familiar to British audiences from his stage work in the past portrays a seemingly invincible foe who literally ends up wheeled around the space in a cage, totally subjugated and humiliated.

Boyd never stints on the bloodbaths, literally pouring the red liquid to convey death. This peaks as a group of Egyptian virgins shower in gore with stunning impact.

After the interval, Part 2 is a more political and personal play. Now, Tamburlaine is established and seeks to secure the future for his family, facing the odd problem including the need to execute the odd unruly son, as happened if you were a true tyrant.

This thoroughly enticing production can be a little confusing with most actors doubling. For example, Miss Janson has to make an instant, cross-dressing transformation from Zenocrate’s deathbed to become Turkish King Callapine. In this role, she takes over from Bajazeth with much greater success.

Even so, the presentation is great fun, carrying a thoroughly American aesthetic, with the glorious John Douglas Thompson in the lead sounding more like a tough contemporary cop on any one of a dozen TV series available worldwide than a typical, well-spoken Shakespearean/Marlovian protagonist.

It works though and the enthusiastic audience, including your critic, lapped this up so one can hope that the production might transfer or tour.