Marlowe's Tamburlaine is a desperately brave, iconoclastic anatomy of the charismatic leader, an engaged and troubled study of the progress of Tamburlaine's career from majestic early conquests and heroic self-fashioning to a numbing decline into mad acts of stunning brutality and self-destruction. One of its central questions relates to retribution—is Tamburlaine ultimately struck down by the offended God whose scourge he has claimed to be, or does he merely die of old age, no more punished than are any of the rest of us who live in and against Time?
Marlowe points this question specifically, and complicatedly, when his Tamburlaine curses Mohammed and puts the Qu'ran to the torch late in part two. In an age of punitive fatwas, of bombs in the Underground, of ethnic theatre riots like those protesting Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti's Bezhti in Birmingham (December 2004), it would be foolhardy to display Tamburlaine's very specific blasphemy on a British stage, and so David Farr's production didn't. The defiant curse was cut, and Tamburlaine torched a collection of harmlessly unidentified "holy books" just before the first traces of his final illness appeared. Earlier, the extensive portrayal of blatant Catholic hypocrisy (a total of five scenes from part two) had also fallen victim to the dramaturgic scissors—a necessary concession to running time, admittedly, but a further neutering of the pointed Marlovian interrogation of organized religions and their truth claims. And if David [End Page 49] Farr's target was narrowed down to the very idea of the charismatic leader, he attacked this target by excising precisely the charisma that sets such a leader above the hoi polloi while shielding him from critique. In so doing, Farr directed a Tamburlaine for 2005 that was in significant ways as much adaptation as direct representation.
Co-produced by Bristol Old Vic, BITE:05, Barbican, and the Young Vic, Farr's Tamburlaine was part of Young Genius, a celebration of youthful work by some of the world's great playwrights. The project, which ran from September to December 2005, mounted ten new co-productions with a variety of British and international theatres, presenting works as diverse as Beaumont's Knight of the Burning Pestle and The Dragon's Trilogy by Robert Lepage. I saw the Marlowe in Bristol in October, before its transfer to London's Barbican. Farr and his designer, Ti Greene, had created a classic stripped down, empty-space event, with wooden boxes and skips serving as thrones, tables, beds, treasure chests; with costumes draped on lighting pipes at the back and sides of the tall open stage; and with all actors in view most of the time. The company was costumed in basic rubber-soled combat boots, khaki jeans or fatigue pants, topped with tee-shirts, tank tops, and the like. Added on indicators of character and rank consisted mainly of functional helmet-style eastern crowns, and dressing-gown robes, quickly tied on or removed in view of the audience, enabling the show's very fluid doubling, and underlining a metatheatrical strategy which resisted immersion in the fictive spectacle of the play. The look was conventionally transhistorical. Tamburlaine and his cohort wore sheepskins at the beginning of the show, and when the Scythian shepherd dropped his, it was to reveal a basic body-hugging shirt of knitted mail stretched over his twenty-first-century guerilla garb. The self-consciously minimalist and Brechtian look said Tamburlaine for a Poor Theatre, even Tamburlaine on the Estate, a suggestion that became insistent when, late in part two of...