Tag Archives: Christopher Marlowe

Crowning Achievement

TAMBURLAINE

The Swan Theatre, Thursday 30th August, 2018

 

Christopher Marlowe’s epic drama was an innovation in its time, and a major breakthrough in the use of blank verse in the theatre.  Michael Boyd’s production, which adapts the two-parter into one three-hour-or-so piece, clearly shows how Marlowe’s work is a kind of prototype for Shakespeare’s early history plays, which were to appear soon after.  Where Will outdoes Kit is in terms of plot development and structure, as well as depth of character – but that’s an essay for another forum.

As the eponymous despot, Jude Owusu gives a commanding performance, breathing life into the lyrical passages Marlowe puts in his tyrant’s mouth, mastering the verse and making it a pleasure to hear.  Owusu adopts high status from the off, even with Tamburlaine’s lowly beginnings as shepherd-turned-brigand.  The play charts the upward course of his career and the inexorable spread of his domination of the Middle East and beyond.  Owusu has the pent-up power of a big cat and his smiling eyes add menace to his pronouncements.  It’s compelling stuff albeit a bit one-note; there is, however, a powerful scene in which he expresses his grief for his dead queen – perhaps the only moment where we feel empathy for this monstrous man.

As said queen, Zenocrate, blonde Rosy McEwen is clad all in white to contrast with the black clobber of Owusu – opposites attract, I suppose!  McEwen brings regal vulnerability to the piece, although I can’t pinpoint when she transitioned from royal hostage to loving wife.

The company is a strong one – mainly men putting themselves about.  Mark Hadfield leavens the machismo by bringing touches of humour to his portrayal of Persian king Mycetes and other roles later on.  David Sturzaker plays it straight as his brother Cosroe, while good use is made of James Tucker as Meander, a lord who is more of a civil servant.  Sagar I M Arya is highly dignified as captured Emperor of the Turks, Bajazeth, while Zabina, his other half, goes from haughty pride to vengeful desperation in a striking performance from Debbie Korley.  I also enjoy Tamburlaine’s henchmen, Usumcasane (Riad Richie) and Techelles (David Rubin).

For the most part, the bloodletting is stylised, with characters on their way out, daubed with red courtesy of a paintbrush dipped in a bucket – although emptying the bucket over someone in a cage brings flashbacks to Saturday morning television of my salad days (yes, this is a TISWAS reference)  There are more graphic moments, such as the excision of someone’s tongue as Tamburlaine silences criticism (rather than merely mewling ‘Fake news!’) but the mass slaughters are kept off-stage, evoked in our imaginations by Marlowe’s descriptions.

Hugely watchable and effective though this production is, I come away a little unsatisfied.  This tyrant is not a tragic figure brought down by a fatal flaw in his nature.  We get no sense of a good man gone bad or the glimmer of redemption turned awry.  I suppose this history of empire-building appealed more to the play’s original audience, who would have revelled in the catalogue of kingdoms chained to Tamburlaine’s yoke and his growing collection of captured crowns.  How different, how very different, from present-day news footage of our weak prime minister, trying to dance her way around Africa in the hope of securing trade deals, while Britain’s status on the world stage plummets for no other reason than folly.

Tamburlaine production photographs_ 2018_2018_Photo by Ellie Kurttz _c_ RSC_258815

Hey, Mr Tamburlaine man! The mighty Jude Owusu (Photo: Ellie Kurttz)

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Troy Story

DIDO – QUEEN OF CARTHAGE

The Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 11th October, 2017

 

Kimberley Sykes’s new production of Christopher Marlowe’s classic romantic fantasy is, in short, a corker.  This is a world where gods interfere directly with the lives of mortals – the two species are differentiated by costume: the gods in modern day dress, the humans in period costume.  It can be no accident that Jupiter (the wonderful Nicholas Day) bears more than a passing resemblance to RSC Artistic Director Mr G Doran… Ellie Beaven is glamorous in a Miss Scarlet gown as the meddling Venus, and Ben Goffe is in good form as the cheeky, mischievous Cupid, pricking his victims with a syringe of Venusian blood.

As the eponymous monarch, Chipo Chung is every inch the regal ruler, albeit an accessible and hospitable one.  Her attachment to the warrior Aeneas (Sandy Grierson) unleashes passionate and capricious emotions; Dido is very much in the Cleopatra vein, at the mercy of her passions – and so is everyone else.  Chung is fantastic, compelling and credible in her excesses of emotion.  Grierson makes a fine paramour as Aeneas – he does come across as a little bit quiet at times but his recounting of the Trojan War is a vivid and gripping piece of storytelling.

Kim Hartman does a pleasing turn as a Nurse, tricked and pricked by Cupid, and Andro Cowperthwaite is especially alluring as Jupiter’s toy boy Ganymede.  Bridgitta Roy stalks around with a stick as the conniving Juno and Amber James brings intensity as Dido’s sister Anna.  I also like Will Bliss’s somewhat rangy Hermes, with wings in his hair.

Mike Fletcher’s original compositions, played live by a tight ensemble, add plenty of locational colour, while Ciaran Bagnell’s versatile lighting plan brings texture and variety to the deceptively simple staging.  Designer Ti Green gives the actors a stage covered in grey sand.  Pristine at first, it is soon disrupted and imprinted by the footprints of all the comings and goings.  It says a lot of the impermanence of life, I find, how easily our presence can be erased.

Above all, the show is a lot of fun.  Heightened action, passions running at full tilt – you can see why the tale is well suited for opera – stirring emotions and more humour than you might expect.

The show contains a lesson in how refugees might be treated, as people today continue to flee for their lives from war-ravaged countries.  Unfortunately, men (it’s invariably men, isn’t it?) persist in committing the atrocities Aeneas describes – but where is the divine intervention now?

Dido_ Queen of Carthage production photos_ 2017_2017_Photo by Topher McGrillis _c_ RSC_231594

Yass, Queen! Chipo Chung as Dido (Photo: Topher Mc Grillis (c) RSC)


Hell is Pants

DOCTOR FAUSTUS

Duke of York’s Theatre, London, Thursday 26th May, 2016

 

While Robb Stark appears as Romeo in Kenneth Branagh’s production just around the corner, here we get Jon Snow in a play by Shakespeare’s contemporary, Christopher Marlowe.

I’m referring of course to Kit Harington in the title role, a big name draw to Jamie Lloyd’s reimagining of the tale of the dissatisfied scholar who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for 24 years of fame and glory.  Harington (as a Game of Thrones fan boy, I am genuinely thrilled to see him!) begins in grey hoodie and spectacles – his Faustus is more of a mature student at the Open University, than a cap-and-gowned Don.   In his grotty flat – think retro motel room – he summons demons.  They don’t have far to come: they watch from all corners of the set, attracted by Faustus’s blasphemous utterances.  The mighty Forbes Masson comes forth as Lucifer, a bald man in grubby vest and pants.  Hell, it emerges, is where you spend eternity in the same underwear.  Menacing and darkly amusing, Masson is as scary as he can be for someone who has forgotten his PE kit.  Compellingly charismatic is Jenna Russell (she who can do no wrong) as Mephistopheles – her karaoke opening to the second act is wickedly funny. She has a deadpan unpredictability that is this production’s real treat.

You’ve gleaned by now Lloyd does not take a traditional approach.  The adaptation by Colin Teevan interpolates new scenes that serve to make Faustus’s glory years more accessible to today’s audience: he becomes a celebrity magician, a kind of Derren Copperfield, of rock-star proportions, entertaining world leaders and getting his face on T-shirts.  Harington is certainly charismatic in this context – his Bill & Ted air guitar riffs only become a little annoying, and the way he declaims his lines suits Faustus’s personality from the off: Faustus is a pompous man whose arrogance brings about his downfall.  The set (by Soutra Gilmour) comes apart, and is revealed to be part of his show.  Canned laughter underscores the dialogue – reminding us that everything is illusion, especially what is promised by the devil…

Off come the hoodie, jeans and singlet.  On go the blood, sweat and tears.  Harington flails around, almost Christ-like, as his time runs out.  His relationship with Wagner (Jade Anouka) makes you hope he can be saved, even though you know he can’t, and makes you hope we can find our own salvation in the love of someone else.

It’s an extremely busy show, teeming with ideas that collide and rebound.  Most of them hit their mark.  There is sheer brilliance when Tom Edden’s Good Angel embodies all seven of the deadly sins in turn.  Evil Angel Craig Stein, in lingerie, struts and pouts in a provocative manner.

The ensemble of demons in their pants create nightmarish tableaux, like Bosch in a bedsit.  There are visual gags, even an actual ball gag, and aural gags, and scenes to make you gag.  But while we wish no harm would come to Harington and his marvellous physique, what is the show getting at?

The set closes in, returning to its original configuration and we are back where we started, except a girl lies raped and murdered, and Faustus revolves on the spot, as though dancing with an invisible demon, forever in a K-hole.  Perhaps the whole thing, the whole 24 years of fame and glory have been nothing but an illusion, and Faustus in a drug-fuelled session has let his rock-star excesses get out of control, bringing about his own damnation.  His longing to feel something, to experience rather than study something, is what leads him astray… That Faustus is inspired to conjure demons by something he reads on the internet may be significant…

There’s never a dull moment.  Lloyd pricks and titillates our imagination.  Shocks are quick and fleeting – there’s always another one along in a minute.  This Doctor Faustus is an enjoyable if at times baffling experience, intense and also frivolous, with plenty of dark and nasty fun, played out by an excellent ensemble. Ultimately, though, it’s like listening to someone tell you about their dreams: you wonder what it’s got to do with you.

kit

Faustus in Kit form (Photo: Marc Brenner)


Pact with Ideas

DOCTOR FAUSTUS

The Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Monday 14th March, 2016

 

Two men approach each other, mirroring each other’s actions. They each strike a match – the man holding the match that burns out the first will play Faustus in this evening’s production, the other will be Mephistopheles. Tonight it’s Sandy Grierson who gets his fingers burned and so his Faustus will play with fire.   This is the opening gimmick in Maria Aberg’s eccentric production of Christopher Marlowe’s play about sin and damnation.

Duality runs through it. The cast is either dressed in black or in white. Male and female actors swap parts (I mean roles!) – Eleanor Wyld appears as Lucifer, a kind of Debbie Harry figure in a John Travolta white suit. She introduces a cabaret, the Seven Deadly Sins on parade as drag queens and sideshow freaks. It’s hard to see why Faustus or anyone would be tempted to commit any of them.

The production is packed with ideas, most of them effective. The summoning of Mephistopheles is creepily atmospheric and tense. Once Faustus makes his pact, we’re waiting for his allotted 24 years to elapse so we can see his downfall. The problem lies in those 24 years. Given that Faustus has bargained away his eternal soul, he doesn’t seem to have much fun. Invisible, he knocks the Pope’s dinner around a bit. His only real enjoyment is when he revels in his (temporary) immortality. He has a pretty colourless time of it.

Oliver Ryan’s Mephistopheles is subtly inhuman but when he’s standing next to Grierson’s Faustus all I can think of is the Pet Shop Boys. Much of Marlowe’s verse is garbled or lost in the percussive music (composed by Orlando Gough) – although the famous Helen of Troy speech (Was this the face that launched a thousand ships?) is handled well, with a rag doll performance from Jade Croot. The music, played live, is responsible for creating most of the show’s atmosphere and keeping things lively – I just wanted it to be more fun. There are moments of dark humour – Mephistopheles is a devil with a Stanley knife, but overall the tone is curiously vibrant but dour.

We ought to feel that Faustus’s pact is an attractive option before we learn, as he does, that it’s not worth it. By the time his final hour approaches and he pleads with Time to stand still, I don’t feel he has been on enough of a journey to have any real sense of tragedy. He needs more peaks before he sinks into his final trough.

Doctor Faustus

Faustus meets his match. Oliver Ryan and Sandy Grierson (Photo: Helen Maybanks)

 

 

 


Maltese Crossed

THE JEW OF MALTA

The Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 29th April, 2015

 

Christopher Marlowe’s play, which has a Jew as the villain, is not staged anywhere near as often as Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice – perhaps we find Shylock more palatable to our modern sensibilities. While we can understand the motivation of Marlowe’s Barabas, his path of vengeance and destruction renders him inhuman – psychopathic, even.

Forced to surrender his fortune in order to pay the state’s protection money to the Turks, Barabas soon bounces back, and sends his spirited daughter Abigail undercover as a nun into the nunnery his house has been turned into, to dig up his secret stash of gems and gold. With these he is able to rebuild his fortune – but that is not enough. He embarks on a plan of revenge on all those who have wronged him. The son of the governor is set up in a duel with a rival that ends fatally. A priest is framed for the murder of a friar. The nuns are wiped out by poisoned porridge…

It’s melodramatic stuff but Justin Audibert directs with a sense of humour and the result is a very black comedy indeed. As the titular Jew, Jasper Britton portrays a delicious kind of evil in a compelling performance. He is aided and abetted by his henchman, Ithamore (Lanre Malaolu, who uses physicality to add humour to his characterisation). Catrin Stewart is powerful as Barabas’s loud and strident daughter and there is excellent support from Matthew Needham as pimp to Beth Cordingly’s jaded hooker, Bellamira. Marcus Griffiths cuts a dash as the imperious Turk, Calymath, while Geoffrey Freshwater and Matthew Kelly vie amusingly with each other for Barabas’s soul and gold coins as two supposedly holy men.  Particularly striking is Annette McLaughlin as Katherine, grieving for her murdered son.

Oliver Fenwick’s sunny lighting gives us the brightness and warmth of the Maltese climate, bouncing off Lily Arnold’s paving stone set. Jonathan Girling’s music, performed live, is both evocative and beautiful, and the fight sequences by Kevin McCurdy have the front rows flinching in their seats.

Marlowe gives his villain all the best lines – Barabas is able to be scathing about religion and people who profess to be Christians but behave contrary to their faith (reminding me of our current and hopefully outgoing government!). “Religion hides many mischiefs from suspicion,” says Barabas. He is not wrong.

This is a thoroughly enjoyable production in which Barabas’s victims deserve what’s coming to them. Moving along at a cracking pace, with plenty of laughs and shocks along the way, the show is as entertaining as you could wish.

To hear the word ‘Jew’ as an insult and disparaging term, makes us wince. We like to feel we are more inclusive and that there is less anti-Semitism around – but then I recall that only the other day the Tories had to sack one of their own for saying she would never support ‘the Jew Ed Miliband’ and I despair.

Jasper Britton (Photo: Ellie Kurttz)

Jasper Britton (Photo: Ellie Kurttz)