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A CurtainUp London Review
Marlowe has embroidered on the legend of Tamburlaine (Greg Hicks), a 14th century conqueror from near Samarkand of humble origin. His enemies called him a Scythian shepherd. Sources say that sheep stealer and petty thief might have described him better. The lands he conquered included Iran, Mesopotamia, Armenia, Georgia, India and Syria. He even took on the Ottoman Empire and captured the emperor Bajazeth (Jeffery Kissoon), and he captured, wooed and married the Egyptian daughter of the Soldan, Zenocrate (Rachael Stirling). Marlowe dramatises Tamburlaine's merciless subjugation of conquered peoples, for instance, the caging of the Ottoman Emperor, the slaughter of the Virgins of Damascus and the chariot pulled by kings. He was ruthless and accepted no authority, not kings, nor emperors, nor any religion, nor God.
Greg Hicks has a magnificent voice and his verse speaking is second to none. His stage presence is much larger than his wiry frame and Tamburlaine is his triumph as he commands our every attention. His first sheepskin jerkin is swapped for imperial robes but the curved sword is ever at his side. His speech to woo Zenocrate is a show stopper in its power and persuasiveness. Rachael Stirling, too is wonderful as Tamburlaine's wife who sees eye to eye with him on the meting out of violence -- her voice deepening to a sonorous pitch and sounding like her mother Diana Rigg. Chuk Iwuji is excellent as Tamburlaine's Persian lord and ally, Theridamus. In one scene he thinks he is demonstrating the power of a miracle drug when the captive Olympia (Katy Stephens) persuades him to cut her throat having told him that the drug would save her. She wanted to die but he is devastated.
Other memorable moments in this production are of the Ottoman emperor and his empress Zabena (Ann Ogbomo) bashing out their own brains on the bars of the cage, after Tamburlaine has used the emperor as a footstool to ascend his throne. I was also taken by the beginning of the second half where giant bags of golden dishes, trophies and plunder hang in black nets over the action like huge string bags of foil covered chocolate money, reminding why these wars are fought and what the rewards are. We get some insights into parenting Tamburlaine style as his three sons are urged to become bloodthirsty warriors like their father. Quentin Tarantino could not have delivered more violence than this.
Part Two features the exit of Tamburlaine's beloved wife and partner in gore, Zenocrate and for the first time he seems to be at a loss for words. This act also has the moving and passionate speech of Theridamus to Olympia, widow of an enemy. The chariot is pulled by princes in a magnificent image of subjugation, of the mighty fallen. The staging has tall girders which drop to form an angle as the city falls. Finally Tamburlaine defies all Gods, daring them as he burns the books of the prophets and then drowns all the inhabitants of Babylon. My attention only wavered at the end when Tamburlaine takes almost twenty five minutes to die. In most scenes the costume changes hang on rails at the back of the stage. The final moment after the title character's somewhat prolonged exit shows the massed white dresses now bloodied, descend on hangers, a chilling and evocative reminder of the deaths attributed to one man's ambition for crowns.
David Farr's adaptation has combined both Tamburlaine plays into one three hours long. This is not theatre lite but the component parts of Greg Hicks' magnificent voice, Farrr's thrilling direction and Ti Green's design coup make it very worthwhile, especially for those of us who appreciate the staging of a dramatic rarity. We can't possible admire Tamburlaine's slaughter or even thrill to it the way his Elizabethan audience might have, instead we will recoil at the barbarity, the inhumanity.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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