Tamburlaine, Old Vic, Bristol

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

It's an evening of mighty verse, glittering imagery and compulsive violence. The two-part play (the sequel is shoehorned into a single three-hour show) sees Tamburlaine hack his way through ancient Persia, Turkey and Egypt.

The evening's trump card is Hicks, exuding Olympian disdain, a sardonic touch and a Bond villain's obsession with global domination. As the atrocities pile up like a pyramid of skulls, Tamburlaine's barbarity has a certain razzle-dazzle about it. Whether using a captive king as a foot stool or having civilians drowned en masse, no one can accuse him of a lack of style.

There's not a lot of fun for his captives. King Bajazeth (the superb Jeffery Kissoon) beats his own brains out rather than suffer the indignities of his cage. And Tamburlaine is quite prepared to kill one of his own sons - "an effeminate brat" - with the same contempt he reserves for his foes.

Zenocrate (played by a dignified Rachael Stirling) provides a note of romance and some rare diplomacy. The grieving Tamburlaine, at her wasting death scene, conjures up an echo of his own eventual demise.

Tamburlaine calls, as he dies, for a world map to see how much territory "the great Tartaric thief" has pinched. King Lear wanted to give all his away. Tamburlaine, mortally ill, has still got places to go.

The mixed-race cast and ethnic string music seem appropriate considering the global nature of the military project. The staging isn't inspirational; but with the bombast and savagery intact, it makes the point that war crimes and the cult of personality are nothing new.

It is above all a rare treat to be exposed to Marlowe, Shakespeare's equal, in full flight. Hicks, with his vinegary voice and sinuous presence, certainly leaves the play's soaring poetry and bloodthirsty blasphemies ringing in the ears.

To 29 October (0117-987 7877); then at the Barbican, London EC2 (020-7638 8891), 9 to 19 November