Writer: Christopher Marlowe
Adaptors and Directors: Ricky Dukes and Gavin Harrington-Odedra
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
Power is a fleeting thing and the sustenance of great empires has often rested in the personality of one great military or political leader. But succession planning is often their downfall so replacement leaders fall quickly and brings that hard-won Empire tumbling down with them. Christopher Marlowe’s Tamburlaine the Great is an epic play that comments on the ultimate human fragility of men who once seemed God-like when achieving victory after victory. Tamburlaine may conquer great swathes of the world but power brings the arrogance to challenging a deity which has its own consequences.
This Lazarus Theatre Company version begins with a powerful and impressive sequence that combines punchy rhythmic dance with choreographed movement and exaggerated marching all to a beating soundtrack. It’s a clever summary of Tamburlaine’s relentlessly fighting style and, you hope, sets the tone for an innovative retelling of this play. While the straight scenes end up being a mixed bag, where this production excels is in the visual impact of the play which the directors and designers have clearly given considerable thought.
It’s in modern dress and a near blank set which works really well and makes a clear link between the themes of this 400 year old play and our own experiences of war and power. Interestingly Tamburlaine’s troupe initially seem like a ragtag lot, all dressed in loose sportswear as though they’ve come from an American basketball court rather than a combat zone. In contrast the court of the Persian Emperor looks like a corporate head office with sharp suits and not a hair out of place. Over time, Tamburlaine’s crew slowly adopt these trappings of power, at one stage appearing in vests and smart trousers before finally being fully suited when his Empire is at its height and this is challenged by some hoodie wearing Turks. Costume Designer Rachel Dingle brilliantly reinforces the cyclical nature of power and the growing professionalisation of Tamburlaine’s forces.
Despite the vibrant war set-pieces the rest of the production is quite variable and given its episodic approach begins to drag. It’s no easy task to slice two long plays into just two hours (the Jackson’s Lane production earlier this year performed Parts 1 and 2 over two nights) but a 90 minute first half is tiring for the audience. It’s a very small cast playing multiple rôles which is admirable although loses some of the sense of scale as armies of thousands supposedly fight it out, and the various lands Tamburlaine conquers are not always clearly demarcated.
Prince Plockey captures the cocky arrogance of Tamburlaine who is first seen arriving to a chant of “Tambo”, and like a prize-fighter punches the air in victory. It’s a swaggering performance that later touches on ruthlessness and Plockey’s presentation of Tamburlaine’s grief and struggle with illness were very good. But there’s not enough variation in the delivery, and could relish the language and imagery more. Of the rest of the cast Kate Austen as Teschelles, Stephen Emery as Cosroe and Thomas Windsor in the dual rôle of Meadner and Callapine particularly stood out. Alex Maude’s Bajazeth was played like a 1970s Bond villain but if your character ends up having his face rubbed in a piece of defrosted Sarah Lee gateaux it’s probably quite hard to find the right tone.
The visual elements of this Tamburlaine the Great are so dynamic and interesting that you longed for more of them, and for some of their fierceness to infuse the rest of the production. The small cast makes this more a political story of exchanging power rather than multi-country epic of military might and savagery, yet there are moments when this is innovative and engrossing. Power may be a fleeting thing but there is lots to like in this production so by doing more of that it will help to drive the plot and give greater value to those impressive visual touches.
Runs until: 12 September