THEATRE / Sher's seizing power: Paul Taylor applauds Terry Hands' magnificent production of Marlowe's Tamburlaine the Great

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The Independent Culture
A ROLE that is merely outsize tends to seem a mite tight-fitting on Antony Sher. Even larger- than-life parts - ambition-crazed monsters such as Richard III and Arturo Ui - have been left with the odd popped button after being modelled by him. So it was always just a matter of time before he got round to Marlowe's Tamburlaine, the megalomaniac's megalomaniac. This upwardly mobile Scythian shepherd is a hero for whom pride goeth before yet another territorial conquest, an amoral, hyperbole-drunk protagonist who inhabits a morality-play structure only to subvert it by succumbing not to divine retribution but simply to the neutral and inevitable facts of death.

Terry Hands's vivid, enthralling production has many virtues (as has Sher's outstanding central performance) but paramount amongst them is the powerful way they both convey, in the second half, the curious sense that Tamburlaine's brutal military progress across the face of the earth increasingly represents a withdrawal into a lonely private world of delusion and fantasy. His last words in this version are not the usual lucid acknowledgement, 'For Tamburlaine, the Scourge of God, must die', but 'And shall I die, and this unconquered?' - the final word reiterated with incorrigible if enfeebled yearning. Ending at this point, the production underscores Tamburlaine's mad refusal to recognise that his mortality is not just a check to his God-like ambitions but a proof of their futility.

Marlowe's two plays, separated by an interval, have been slimmed down to a fluent, fast-moving three and a quarter hours. The fact that effectiveness in this world is equated with oratorical exhibitionism and 'high astounding terms' is brought home amusingly at the start by Tamburlaine's first opponent, the hapless ninny Mycetes, played by Lloyd Hutchinson as someone painfully conscious that nature has lumbered him with a script by the Renaissance equivalent of Ernie Wise rather than by Marlowe. His experiments with word-play - 'My noble men, / That know my wit, and can be wit (hopeful pause) nesses' - make even him wince.

The hero and his gang have the look at first of barbaric guerrillas. Always liable, when faced with danger, to revert to hissing animal snarls, Sher's Tamburlaine begins by approaching long, euphonious words with a primitive awe, separately treasuring each syllable of Zenocrate, for example, as though it were a charm. His adversaries, Bajazeth (Malcolm Storry) and the Turks, clump around on golden stilts which, instead of giving them the advantage, make them seem like evolutionary laggards, out-manoeuvred by nippier opponents. Sher swings in a la Tarzan and kicks the Turkish king over, and at one point performs a swollen-headed aerial rope-stunt to promote himself as 'the chiefest Lamp of all the earth'.

Strikingly, Hands intensifies our sense of Tamburlaine's atrocities: the virgins who sue for peace to him before Damascus are, for example, little pre-pubertal girls, and Claire Benedict's distraught Zenocrate makes a desperate lunge to save one of them as she is hauled off to her brutal fate. Those piercing eyes of his given to little deranged bulges, Sher lets you see, even in the first half, just how necessary for the hero's peace of mind is a quick fix of hyperbole. And, in the second half, he lets you hear the exhausted bankruptcy of the continued bombast. There is a wonderful sequence, when he is being drawn in his chariot by the vanquished kings, where Hands freeze-frames the action around him and slurred, headachy music faintly plays, with the result that Tamburlaine seems to be heading ever deeper into an inner personal nightmare.

After taunting God and burning the Koran, this Tamburlaine sways sickly and almost follows the book into the smoky pit. Divine retribution? Sher looks up as though he thinks it might be. But that would be a more comforting conclusion than the bleak, pathetic sense you get at the conclusion here that a man finds his limitations alone.

In rep at the Swan, Stratford- upon-Avon (0789 295623).