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 The Theatreguide.London Review


Tamburlaine
Barbican Theatre November 2005

A too-rarely-performed masterpiece is given as brilliant a production as you could beg for, and it's only in town for a couple of weeks. Run.

Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare were born in the same year, but when Marlowe died in 1593 he had already written at least two masterpieces (this and Dr. Faustus), while Shakespeare's career was just getting started. (Had he lived longer, would Stratford be a ghost town and tourists now be flocking to Canterbury to see the Royal Marlowe Company?)

Marlowe's genius was in language, subtlety in some plays, lushness in others. Tamburlaine overflows with speeches that fill the ear and must taste wonderful in the actors' mouths - names and places like Usumcasane, Zenocrate and Persepolis (Just try saying them out loud), and rafter-shaking boasts and curses.

Not much actually happens in the play - or, rather, the same thing happens over and over. The wild warlord Tamburlaine comes out of the Caucasus and proceeds to conquer most of Asia and the Middle East. One king after another sneers at this upstart, and then one king after another is defeated and humiliated.

Half the time Tamburlaine doesn't even have to fight, the power of his boasts and threats cowing others into submission or winning them over as allies.

For the last major London production of this play a dozen years ago, Terry Hands of the RSC matched the play's linguistic riches with elaborate and impressive staging effects. Director David Farr has taken the opposite route for this Young Vic - Bristol Old Vic coproduction, putting it on as bare a stage as the play will allow.

'There's not much here to look at,' the production announces, 'So just listen.'

And listen we do, to the words spoken as beautifully and powerfully as you could hope, and in the process we discover that this does not mean untheatricality. Energy-filled speeches spoken with energy fill the stage with a sense of action. (Farr's brisk staging, jumping from scene to scene with a cinematic speed produced primarily by lighting changes, generates a sense of forward movement in even the most static scenes.)

At the play's centre, Greg Hicks gives one more of the by-now-characteristically brilliant performances that make you wonder why the world doesn't recognise him as a superstar.

I've always been a Hicks fan, admiring his ability to bring a reality to the most barely sketched-in of characters, but I had forgotten how very, very good a verse speaker he is. Hicks dominates the stage with the power of his acting just as his character conquers the world with his language.

The play doesn't really allow anyone else to take the focus away from Tamburlaine, but Rachel Stirling as his bride and Jeffery Kissoon as the most humiliated of his enemies give strong support.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Tamburlaine - Barbican 2005