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Tamburlaine the Great

Cahiers Elisabéthains, October 1995

Tamburlaine’ was broadcast on one evening on 26th September 1993. The play was cut by around 470 lines, or some 10% of its length. Most of the cuts were of descriptive passages (such as the description of the army in ‘I Tamburlaine IV.1, or the roll call of Callapine’s kings in ‘2 Tamburlaine III.5). This relatively light cutting meant that many scenes were played quickly. The relatively few places where characters faced death – the most obvious being Tamburlaine’s reaction to the death of Zenocrate – were thus fore grounded. The director, Michael Fox, set the play in a desert, imagining ‘the play existing on a vast plain of shifting sand, stretching to an infinite horizon, with small encampments and towns dotted across the bleak landscape’. This, coupled with the decisions not to attempt realistic battle scenes, played to the play’s descriptive strengths. The death of Zenocrate was suggested by nothing more than a speech sotto voce from Tamburlaine with her laboured breathing in the background. The pampered jades were presented by sounds of whipping. Without visual stimulus, the capacities of Marlowe’s language were not measured against existing scenes, but given a freedom to produce, rather than describe, reality. This play, more clearly than ‘Dido’, revealed Marlowe’s debt to narrative verse; as with ‘Dido’, that the language was used to evoke scenes rather than just reveal character or move the action along allowed the play to survive the transfer to radio surprisingly well.

Fox split the play into some sixty-eight sections – roughly twice the conventional number of scenes. The music between the scenes however was not the tense short melodies of ‘Edward II’; the characteristic tone of the music was a few long notes on an (electronic?) brass instrument. Whilst the music in ‘Edward’ produced the sensation of time passing quickly, this did the opposite. The play’s ranging through space and time was effectively conveyed by sustaining of a very few notes.

Michael Pennington’s Tamburlaine was the centrepiece of the production. Few of the other characters survived long enough to make and impression, perhaps inevitably in a production where a cast of twenty-one handled forty-three named parts between them. ‘Tamburlaine’ has often been staged as a spectacular play, and Tamburlaine as a vaunting magnifico. The problem facing this production was to find an alternative to the play’s visual set and to suggest Tamburlaine’s personal magnetism and power without being able to show it.

Pennington’s Tamburlaine took its cue from Tamburlaine’s confidence in his destiny. This allowed him to be quickly assertive in places where the script might have seemed to require volume and force. An early example of this was given through the contrasting styles of Tamburlaine and Bajazeth before their battle. Rudolph Walker’s Bajazeth, facing his contributory kings, was aware of the public nature of his speeches, and paced and projected his scorn for Tamburlaine with a confident hauteur. Tamburlaine, in contrast, showed no attempt to project or impress his listeners, confident in his contempt for the ‘scum of Africa’.

Pennington’s Tamburlaine was at his most vaunting when triumphing over Bajazeth in the case in ‘1 Tamburlaine’, and when describing his prospective entry into Samarkand in ‘2 Tamburlaine’. Battle excited him, and exulting in his victory, cruelly and sarcastically, came from the high spirits that winning engendered. The cumulative effect of these triumphs was to make his last few scenes approach hubris.

That such a low-key approach was made to the main characters is perhaps because the radio production did not allow the actors to address themselves to impressing an audience. Pennington’s Tamburlaine was never speaking to more than a handful of characters, whom he either did not need to impress (his own contributory kings) or did not care about (his various adversaries). This quiet intensity made the transition to his reflective soliloquies, such as that outside Damascus in ‘1 Tamburlaine V2’, or most obviously in ‘2 Tamburlaine’ during and after Zenocrate’s death, an easy one. These two instances were the only occasions when Tamburlaine appeared vulnerable. His anger saw him through the betrayal by his son Calyphas, and his hopes for his remaining sons through his own death.

With such a large cast, and so much doubling, there was little in the way of in-depth characterisation possible, even if the amount of text to be got through had not meant too hectic a pace in many places. The combination of Tamburlaine’s intensity, and the musical effects, more than made up for this in establishing a mood of foreboding and cruelty. That this production was not as shapeless as ‘The Massacre’ was due to this, and the central presence of Tamburlaine (and Bajazeth for much of the first half) allowing a focus for the listener.

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