Christopher Marlowe, adapted by David Farr
Young Genius season
Review by Philip Fisher
David Farr's cut-down version of Tamburlaine is built around a towering performance from Greg Hicks as the evil emperor. After his successful Edinburgh sojourn in the solo Missing Persons, which included an uncharacteristic portrayal of an Irish football fan and is coming to the Trafalgar Studios soon, Hicks is back on more familiar ground in a large scale classic at the Barbican.
Even with heavy editing, the new artistic director of the Lyric Hammersmith's contribution to the Young Vic's Young Genius Season lasts close to three hours but never drags.
The play, or more accurately condensed pair of plays, qualifies for Young Vic selection with ease, since Kit Marlowe was a mere 23 years old when he wrote it and, by any measure, a prodigy. Indeed, since he died before reaching thirty, and had that special something that might amount to genius, any of his plays might have appeared in this season.
Tamburlaine the Great was a 14th Century Scythian tyrant who took over a significant portion of the known world, only Alexander the Great controlled more. He was, though, a horribly driven and drivenly horrible man.
The first play features an almost unremitting series of cruel conquests as Tamburlaine conquers country after country, with high or low points including his slaughter of Babylonian virgins and horrific treatment of the Turkish emperor Bazajeth and his wife Zabina. Jeffery Kissoon and Ann Ogbomo are equally good as a great ruler brought to nothing and imprisoned in a cage and his shackled wife.
At times, it seems that one of the motivations for Tamburlaine to move ever onward in his attempts to conquer the whole of the world is desire to impress his much-loved and very beautiful wife, Rachel Stirling's strong Zenocrate.
To this point, both the play and its anti-hero are rather one-paced, even if that pace is breathless. This results from a combination of the writing and Farr's attempt to edit two plays into a single manageable evening.
Tamburlaine continues to pillage after the interval as we reach part two but his personal life intrudes, intensifying his behaviour, both good and bad if that is possible. Hicks peaks when, as the great man loses his Zenocrate, he delivers a most moving lament over her body.
His desire to have his own way stretches beyond Babylonian genocide into the bosom of his own family. Wanting successful children who follow in father's manly but violent footsteps is one thing but slaughtering a son for his failure to become a tyrant is stretching paternal discipline a little too far.
Hicks is consistently impressive, dominating Ti Green's gigantic open set throughout until, at the last, his death is welcomed by a snowfall of symbolically bloodied white robes. He gets strong support from all with Katy Stephens as Olympia the pick, along with those already named.
Marlowe is not Shakespeare but this reduced version of Tamburlaine is well worth a viewing, both for a chance to see Greg Hicks on form and to watch a worthwhile play that explores a man who can be seen as a precursor to so many power-crazed maniacs, Hitler perhaps being one of the most obvious.