Review: Tamburlaine the Great, Tristan Bates Theatre

Christopher Marlowe’s sweeping epic is given a modern twist at the Tristan Bates Theatre. We are instantly bombarded with banging techno, synchronised marching in suits, chanting their hearts out under a floodlight’s glare.Thereafter the intensity doesn’t really drop. A tale of a shepherd turned ruthless warrior-king, the eponymous Tamburlaine and his friends sweep across Asia and Africa conquering kingdom after kingdom with roaring success and bloodthirsty abandon.

Marlowe’s script is complex and big in scope. Grand statements personifying the sun and rousing speeches that take in all corners of the Earth are par for the course. The adaptation by directors Ricky Dukes and Gavin Harrington-Odedra rolls with these strengths, keeping the high octane scenes coming one after another. Bar a few important speeches, the script rolls along on dynamic conversation almost constantly. The only flaw I would point out is that there is a scene discussing war, followed by a scene declaring war, followed by a scene boasting about the spoils of war and so on. Other than the death of Tamburlaine’s wife, and his own demise, the scenes appear to all be quite similar for large chunks. As the intensity is high, it is still watchable, but did at times need a little breaking up.

Prince Plockey delivers an excellent performance as Tamburlaine, which really carries the production throughout. His role is utterly dominant in almost all scenes, and he brings a confidence, passion and tension to the role that really engages in the audience. There are moments where lines get lost, particularly in the first half where the script is somewhat a victim of trying to keep the pace high. However, he has real presence, and in the second half takes the opportunity to show his versatility as Tamburlaine reflects on his life and mourns his wife with real emotion.

The ensemble vary in quality, but all the big scenes come with smart choreography and crackle with tension. It is a big cast with the vast majority of them playing multiple roles. Most of them show real versatility, most notably Georgie Grier (Anippe/The Spy/Virgin 4/King of Trebizon), Thomas Winsor (Meander/Callapine) and Stephen Emery (Cosroe/King of Fez/Orcane), as well as a beautifully exuberant Alex Maude (Bajazeth). These actors show clarity and difference between their roles and find ways to add real life to scenes, especially with often small roles. There are others who don’t find this differentiation, but they do all keep the pace and rhythm required by the script.

It is the costume that leads the modern, punchy theme. At the start the kings and powerful men are wearing suits, plus some wonderful crowns, and Tamburlaine and his friends are dressed in vests and shorts. As they gain power, Tamburlaine and his friends begin to gain pieces of a suit bit by bit, which shows a really clear progression, especially with a really bare set (just chairs across the back and some books). With the bright lights and loud music, it’s a very competent way of complementing the modern theme, and allows the audience to chart Tamburlaine’s development visually.

The lighting design is inventive, and is used very effectively to direct focus and create atmosphere, such as using the floodlight and red washes for battle. A smoke machine adds to this, as dust settles after battles, but at times it actually obscures the whole stage, which is especially problematic if Tamburlaine is sitting at the back.

The modern adaptation works well, as it isn’t overdone, and evokes questions of religious conflict and political greed that is very relevant today. The only other major problem is that an awful lot of lines were delivered upstage. I’m not someone who is put off too much by this, but it happened so otenf, that we lost valuable facetime with the actors, and lines did get lost. However, the concept fits together well, with nicely choreographed set pieces and Plockey carries this production to a high level.

Tamburlaine the Great is playing Tristan Bates Theatre until 12 September. For more information and tickets, see the Tristan Bates Theatre website..