ABBI BROWN was let down by a play that did not fulfill its dramatic expectations.
As the mesmerising voice of Joe Pitts, standing illuminated before the altar, echoed around Michaelhouse Chancel, the audience of Tamburlaine the Great seemed to be in for a treat. One of only two of Christopher Marlowe’s works to be performed during his lifetime, Tamburlaine the Great is a fantastic play, the gory yet nuanced story of a shepherd who, having conquered every nation in the world, wages war against Jove himself. Sadly, Joe Pitts’ haunting Persian solo, which worked so perfectly as an introduction both to the play and to its setting, gave his audience false hopes. The rest of the production was downhill from then on.
Half of the first scene was performed entirely in darkness, a technical fault made more forgivable by its shielding the audience from Quintin Langley-Coleman’s cringe-inducing performance as Mycetes. Darkness became a running theme: scene changes were the polar opposite of slick, marginally improved in the second half when some bright spark started playing more Persian music between scenes. There was a lot of leaving and arriving and posing, and not a lot in between. The decision to perform the play in a church, which had initially seemed so atmospheric, rapidly became the play’s pitfall; very few of the cast adapted their voices to suit the church’s acoustics, meaning much of Marlowe’s dialogue descended into indecipherable gabbling or shouting.
My favourite scene of the play depicts two of Tamburlaine’s slaves committing suicide by bashing their own brains out on the bars of their cage. This is, admittedly, difficult to enact on stage, but the replacement of this scene with one in which the slaves suffocate themselves with their own shackles is both biologically impossible and nowhere near as exciting. For a play contemporarily renowned for its stage effects, this, coupled with the crappy ‘battle scene’ sound effects, all seemed a bit half-hearted.
There were a few redeeming features. The dying itself was, throughout the play, well done, which is important because there is a lot of dying. Fresher Katurah Morrish far outshone the rest of the cast as Zenocrate, a complicated role which she captured with an exceptional balance of strength and fragility. Jack Parham made a fine Tamburlaine, but was rarely anything other than fine until he started dying. Costumes were excellent all-round.
I really like Tamburlaine, and I really wanted to like this performance. I’m giving it three stars solely because it’s fair for Karurah Morrish and whoever organised costumes to get one each (Pitts and Parham can share one). Those four aside, you may as well stay at home and read the play yourself.