FROM THE black farce of The Jew of Malta in the Sixties to the Faustian overtones of Edward II two years ago, the RSC has never touched Marlowe without coming up with something amazing; and its winning streak continues in Terry Hands' production of Tamburlaine, the first smash-hit and most disreputable masterwork of the Elizabethan stage.
Not only on the stage. As Charles Nicholl recently pointed out in his study of Marlowe's murder, The Reckoning, Tamburlaine was also a Rambo-like hero to the xenophobic ballad-makers of the 1590s who had declared war on London's immigrant population. Applauding him is like applauding National Front graffiti. Except, of course, that he was an uppity Scythian whose world conquest was designed, in particular, to make mincemeat of the Christians. As always with Marlowe, anything you say about him instantly rebounds. What remains constant is his impious defiance of all forms of authority - hence his persisting glamour. He is a natural author for Terry Hands, whose best productions revel in contradictions, and follow the principle of 'both/and'.
In the present case, this means presenting an atheist who also claims to be the scourge of God; a cannibal warlord who speaks cosmic poetry; and a power-mad ruler with a cheerful contempt for kings. The first cliche to go is the idea that Marlowe is all rhetoric and no laughs: witness the opening scene of the wimpish King of Persia (Lloyd Hutchinson) trying to pull rank with his contemptuous courtiers while grovelling on his knees. Later, Tamburlaine happens upon this wretched monarch trying to bury his crown. 'Are you the witty King of Persia?' he asks in blank amazement, before returning to the battlefield, leaving his victim gasping 'O God]' in the tone of one getting a redundancy notice. One discovery of the show is that Marlovian comedy is wonderfully responsive to modern inflections.
Antony Sher's Tamburlaine follows Richard III, Singer, and Arturo Ui as the latest in his line of upstart tyrants. Another under-sized nonentity who becomes the terror of the earth, his particular strength here is that he never ceases to be an outsider: beginning as a ragged shepherd, and dying with his thickened, worn-out body still clad in sheepskins. 'Is it not passing brave to be a king?' he asks; and the majestic line sharpens into a sardonic comment from a nomadic warrior, squatting with his peasant followers, watching the bickering royals like gilded insects that he can squash whenever he wants. No, he implies, as he crams two coal-scuttle crowns on a protege's head, there is nothing much to being a king: conquest is all that counts. This leaves Sher with the task of justifying Tamburlaine's tirades in praise of regal pomp; which come over like pornographic fantasies, whipping his imagination to the luxurious limit in a vain attempt to excite desire.
Tension between real and imagined appetite becomes the main theme of the show, and preserves its vitality into the second half when interest is apt to flag under the relentless tide of victories and carnage. Hands has added to this risk with his stunning treatment of the Bajazet episode in the first part. He brings on the Turkish emperor (Malcolm Storry) and his courtiers as tusk-helmeted monsters on golden stilts who lurch over the stage in an ungainly war dance, ending when Tamburlaine abseils in and topples his adversary. After the ensuing cannibal feast, with the blooded hero spearing choice morsels from a giant tureen and feeding them to the caged emperor, there is nothing much a director can add in the way of spectacle.
What does develop is the figure of Tamburlaine himself. There are some clumsy cuts in the second half (what remains of the Olympia episode makes no sense), and some wilful misreadings, such as the attempt to promote Tamburlaine's coward son into a conscientious objector. Sher, meanwhile, emerges as a progenitor of Ibsen's Peer Gynt: an insatiable wanderer dreaming of an ultimate homecoming. Within that pattern he ages into the roles of bereaved lover (for Claire Benedict's Zenocrate), down-to-earth military instructor, and sulphurously ironic avenger. Then comes the great speech forecasting his homecoming and death. Sher delivers it lyrically until he gets to the last four words - 'and meet him there' (meaning the Almighty, should he exist); at which point his voice turns to thunder and he stabs a challenging finger at the sky. There, if anywhere, the contradictions of Tamburlaine are resolved.
With The Merry Wives of Windsor we are back on the Bardic treadmill. Played on a flimsy toytown set (by William Dudley), David Thacker's production signals a wholesome entertainment firmly rooted in middle-class life. It does not work out like that, despite the commanding presence of John Nettles in the no-thanks role of the immovably domestic Mr Page. There is an impressive cast; but, Nettles apart, they succeed only in the frenzied roles. I have never seen a duller Shallow, Quickly, or Slender. Benjamin Whitrow's genially harmless Falstaff could pick up a seasonal living as Windsor's resident Father Christmas. On the wild side, though, are Ron Cook's preening Caius, a black and yellow wasp, practising balletic strokes with one rapier, and then collapsing under the weight of the next sword he picks up; and Anton Lesser's Ford, driven into falsetto screeches by his manly jealousy, and doing himself untold mischief every time he tears off his false moustache. The wives, too, (Gemma Jones, Cheryl Campbell) are wonderful once they lose their cool. Funnier than anything they do to Falstaff is the sight of Campbell remembering him and pummelling her hat.
In Billy Roche's Amphibians the employees of a seafood factory look with resentment at their one neighbour (Eagle) who still scrapes a living from the sea: and when, following local custom, Eagle initiates his 13-year-old son into manhood by marooning him overnight, the factory hands follow him to the island and execute a bloody reprisal. I have admired Mr Roche's previous Wexford plays, largely for their ability to dramatise Irish misery without succumbing to the Irish stage cliches which have surfaced with a vengeance in this piece. It still retains his exact eye for place, and his delicate feeling for individual lives under the pressure of the past; but these unemphatic virtues are all but obliterated by stock relationships and brutally manipulative plotting. In Michael Attenborough's tourist viewpoint production, Kevin Burke as the boy creates a dramatic oasis of humour and imperturbable common sense among the melodramatic writhings of the grown-ups.
Edinburgh paid its main debt to the international stage with last week's performances of An Ancient Trilogy by the National Theatre of Bucharest, Romania. These Greek and Latin conflations of Medea, The Trojan Women, and Elektra are ancient in more senses than one, as their director, Andrei Serban, first developed them with the New York Cafe La Mama in the Seventies under the influence of Peter Brook's multi-language experiments. When The Trojan Women visited Edinburgh in 1976, I thought Serban was working from an already obsolete model. But now, to be summoned down a sepulchrally darkened corridor at the Corn Exchange to witness Theatre of Cruelty rituals enacted to rhythmic chants that nobody is supposed to understand feels like going back 20 years. The event is said to have something to do with the Ceausescus; it seems rather to show how long the Romanian theatre has taken to catch up.
'Tamburlaine', Swan, 'Merry Wives of Windsor', Royal Shakespeare, Stratford (0789-295 623); 'Amphibians', Pit (071-638 8891).
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