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Friday, November 7, 2014

Tamburlaine at Theatre For A New Audience

I saw Tamburlaine on Wednesday in Brooklyn, at Theatre For A New Audience.

It’s astonishing. It’s disturbing. It is quite unlike any other play I have ever seen.

It is not for everyone, but I recommend it very highly.

It is very rarely staged, and even if you have little interest in the play, you should not miss this opportunity to see it.

It runs through 21 December. Here is a link for more information and tickets:

I am not a professional theatre critic, but I do want to share some of my thoughts with you.

Is the play good? Is the play bad? It is very hard to say. It is a play that is beyond good or bad. 

I’m not even sure it can be called a play.

Yes, there is a stage and actors but what happens on stage is so strange and violent and unusual that it’s very hard to put into words.

Also, it made me think of the violent and gory plays of Seneca, whom the Elizabethans like Christopher Marlowe were imitating in plays like Tamburlaine, or Shakespeare’s blood-spattered Titus Andronicus and Richard III

But Seneca’s plays were arguably never supposed to be performed, only read aloud, and the images that are spoken of are meant to be heard and then seen only in the mind of the audience, and not visualized on the stage. 

The Elizabethans may have been basing their violent plays on the wrong assumption.

So, when I watched Tamburlaine, I could not help but think that this is not a play at all, it is almost impossible to act, and that it’s endless displays of violence and gore (while very tastefully done, and not gratuitous) are meant to be imagined in our minds and not seen on the stage.

The actors are all excellent, and I immediately got to my feet at the end to give them a standing ovation.

Because as fine as the performances of these actors were, it was incredible how hard they worked to perform a play that defies actors and performances.

What I mean is that the plays characters are so larger than life and so impossibly inhuman that it is like it is not even written for actors. I can’t help but think that Marlowe wrote it to be read first and foremost, and it’s success on stages in London circa 1590 was incidental, an accident perhaps.

As far as the violence is concerned, I warn you the play is bloody.

But how else can you tell a story about a real historical figure, Tamburlaine (or Timur the Lame) who sacked whole cities, conquered whole empires, and is believed to have killed during his reign upwards of 17 million men, women and children?

If that 17 million figure is accurate, then he killed approximately 5% of the population of the world. How incredible. How horrible.

A map of the Timurid Dynasty, the land Timur conquered

The fact that this story is somehow fit into the space of a 3 1/2 hour play is something like a miracle. The pace of the play is relentless, the conflict between Tamburlaine and his enemies is so constant, and the deaths, murders and suicides so frequent that it becomes at times mind-numbing.

And yet, it is a play that should be seen, at least once in a lifetime.

John Douglas Thompson as Tamburlaine is a force of nature. He gives an incredible, outstanding, bravura performance that I will never forget as long as I live. 

John Douglas Thompson as Tamburlaine
in rehearsal

There is a central moment in the play where he rides a chariot and cracks a whip to drive on, ever forward into the next scene and next fray. Mr. Thompson was just incredible how he propelled the play forward on and on, keeping it at sometimes a breakneck speed where occasionally my mind couldn’t keep up with what he was saying, but I was forced to embrace the next scene, the next moment, and try to catch my breath.

There is not a lot of nuance to Tamburlaine the man. There are not a lot of soul-searching soliloquies. He calls himself the “scourge of God” and he is constantly projecting himself to be a larger than life figure, who is always ready to do battle with the Almighty. Mr. Thompson captures this insane and megalomaniacal spirit and never lets it go, not for a moment.

I don’t know many actors who would even consider tackling such a herculean role, and his performance deserves to be seen.

The rest of the cast is incredible.

I was thrilled to see Chukwudi Iwuji again. I saw him as Edgar in King Lear, at Shakespeare in the Park this last July. He was the best Edgar I have ever seen, and his performance here was simply brilliant. He has some of the quietest and most human moments in the play, and he makes them as heartbreaking as possible.

Chukwudi Iwuji
in rehearsal

Patrice Johnson Chevannes as his wife shares some of those heartbreaking moments, and she was just terrific. It is a very difficult role, since she has to be ferocious as Tamburlaine’s enemy, and very compassionate as his slave and prisoner, but Ms. Chevannes made it seem effortless.

Merritt Janson as Zenocrate, a princess whom Tamburlaine takes as a spoil of war, also finds a dignity to her role that I found very moving. And as hard as it was to believe that a princess like her would ever come to love a barbaric monster like Tamburlaine, Ms. Janson makes it seem real and plausible.

The entire cast gives very impressive performances, and many in the cast perform more than one role. But their energy never flagged, and their excitement to perform this often ignored play was evident throughout.

The director is Michael Boyd, who was the Artistic Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company from 2002 to 2012. He deserves great praise, for staging this play, for editing both parts into a manageable whole, for facing the politics and bloodshed of the play straight on, and for pulling no punches. 

Michael Boyd
in rehearsal

Perhaps it’s just me, since I was watching the play during a full moon over New York, on the 409th anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot, but I couldn’t help but think how important a play this is, since it brings us face to face not just with the bloody and monstrous Tamburlaine and the horrors and bloodshed of the past, but it also brings us to face horrors, the bloodshed, and the monsters in our modern world.

Christopher Marlowe, and Shakespeare, lived in a world where religious violence was an ever-present threat. As much as times have changed, and cultures have changed, there are still great dangers, still great violence, and there are still men in this world who believe that murder, killing, and conquest confers greatness.

So, as much as the world has changed in 400 years, it has not changed much at all.

If there is a moral to this story, if there is any meaning to this play, perhaps this is it.

If you see this, please let me know what you think of it.


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