Christopher Marlowe’s epic Tamburlaine is rarely produced for a reason; even in its edited form the play, which spans decades and continents, runs three-and-a-half hours (including a 30 minute intermission) and, at moments, is likely to try the patience of even the most attuned audience member.
The play, which follows the rise to power of its title character, a conniving Scythian shepherd (John Douglas Thompson), is considered one of the great Elizabethan plays thanks to its ambitious scope. Its themes of power and greed resonate as sharply today as they must have in Marlowe’s time (the play’s twisty-turny plot has about as many surprises as a season of House of Cards), but it’s certainly not a play that makes for easy viewing for listless contemporary audiences. Perhaps in an effort to counter audience’s prejudices against classical sixteenth century plays, much has been made of the guts and gore of this new production, which features blood by the buckets, but audiences need not have been afraid to begin with. Even without the blood, Marlowe’s use of cleanly-written blank verse makes Tamburlaine — at least in its most thrilling moments — about as exciting and accessible, if not somewhat more so, than many of Shakespeare’s works.
Director Michael Boyd, a former artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, makes a compelling case for the merits of the play in his current production at Theatre for a New Audience’s Polonsky Shakespeare Center, which is presented here in two parts with edits of Boyd’s own choosing. The company’s new digs (the theatre opened in late 2013) provides for an incredibly intimate theatrical experience — even the orchestra section has only eight rows — and the space is utilized excellently for this production, which sprawls across the breadth of the thrust stage and into the house, where actors appear at the mezzanine level to enhance the generally immersive feeling of the production. Above the playing space is perched a live percussionist (Arthur Solari), who composed the production’s menacingly effective score.
It’s nearly impossible to summarize the play in brief, but comparisons to Shakespeare might at least help explain the shape of the play, which, in its first part, describes a kind of ruthless Richard III-style bloody ascent for its antihero, who, in its second part, confronts the notion of divvying up his winnings a la King Lear. Many of the actors in the company play multiple roles, including Paul Lazar, who plays several deposed rulers with a comically arch glint in his eye, and Royal Shakespeare Company veteran Chukwudi Iwuji, who also takes on two monarchs with assurance.
Of course, Thompson is the primary focus here and he doesn’t disappoint. He speaks Marlowe’s words with a confidence and ease that sets him apart even from the rest of the otherwise excellent company, which includes a confident Merritt Janson as Tamburlaine’s wife Zenocrate (and also as the son of Tamburlaine’s Turkish rival, Bajazeth). Thompson, a classically trained actor who has played Othello and Macbeth, as well as the title character in The Emperor Jones, lends this production a terrifying center that manages to captivate throughout, even as the play begins to meander during its second part.
Boyd, one of the world’s foremost directors of Shakespeare’s work, is certainly an expert at corralling unruly plays, and his work here continues to demonstrate that knack. His productions of the history plays at the Roundhouse in London and in Stratford-upon-Avon allowed for crisp and for the most part easily digestible interpretations of some of Shakespeare’s densest and most difficult works (his Richard II featuring Jonathan Slinger in the title role was particularly unforgettable). Here he brings his signature clarity to a work that takes the viewer on such a vast journey that the program lists the setting as “an imaginatively contracted and expanded time-space encompassing the Ottoman Empire, Persia and Central Asia.” With the occasional help of a detailed synopsis that’s provided, it’s fairly easy to follow the play’s basic arc thanks to Boyd’s visual cues and the adroit switches in tone that his cast manages, even when doubling requires the actors to switch from one role to another in an instant.
Boyd also makes powerful use of symbolism throughout. Though the play’s death sequences are occasionally overpowered by his use of blood, which is splayed across the dying as a visual cue (occasionally without a clear enough explanation as to the actual cause of death). It’s clear that Boyd understands the savagery of Tamburlaine, particularly as, near the play’s climax, he enters atop a cage-cum-carriage full of stolen crowns, pulled by two bound prisoners. With Boyd’s assured guidance, Thompson brings a layer of humanity that greatly enlivens this centuries-old play, which seems unlikely to experience many other revivals in the foreseeable future. For that reason alone, even in spite of its limitations, this production demands to be seen.