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Tamburlaine the Great 1976 - National Theatre

 

 © Photographer Nobby Clarke

'One of the most remarkable things in Mr Hall’s production is that it can evoke wonder at the man as well as horror. And near the end even pity hovers in the air… As a spectacle, the production is very fine. John Bury’s designs, gold and red, black and multi-coloured, fit and reflect the spirit of work perfectly. The development of the drama is compelling throughout, delicate, almost lyrical episodes contrasting brilliantly with the operatic scenes. Mr Hall’s detail is as rich and clear as his bold, sweeping strokes. There is not a moment when one is not within the play, being driven into an extraordinary world, though at the same time it is a world which disturbingly has reminders of our own world today.' R. B. Marriott, Review, The Stage, 7 October 1976

'Peter Hall’s production has pace. He drives the scenes along, battering through the changes with quadraphonic drums. Great slabs of white light, overhead, front of house. Powerful back lighting, makes the battle scenes, with smoke hanging over the circular stage, shot with smouldering oranges and reds, look like Dutch Renaissance paintings. Entrances from darkness, through light that bleaches out faces, them sharpens them into focus on stage, are used effectively but often repetitively. The production in many respects represents the best of a certain kind of tradition, but there is a predictability about it. It doesn’t really measure up to the play. The old form drapes about the play’s content like a multi-coloured shroud. The groupings are conventional and repetitive and the deliveries of the actors are an orgy of English verse speaking, mannered and rhythmic but lacking in any danger or surprise.' Brian Moore, ‘Tamburlaine – Defiant voice of a new class’, The News Line, 14 October 1976

'Peter Hall, in the production with which he opens the Olivier Theatre, has chosen exactly the right approach. The characters are confined to the circular, undecorated stage, the groupings predominantly symmetrical. The emotional content of the narrative must be gleaned almost entirely from the speech…Visual excitement is ensured by the splendour of the costumes … and the horror of the gruesome inventions Marlowe puts in – Bajazeth in his cage, Tamburlaine’s carriage drawn by two captive kings with bits in their mouths…'. B. A. Young, Review, Financial Times, 5 October 1976

 'To signal the megalomania of the Scythian shepherd who conquered half of Asia and Africa, Hall had him riding in a carriage pulled by two captive kings with bits in their mouths, As Bajazeth, the fallen Turkish king, Denis Quilley achieve the difficult task of making his defeat more moving than any of Tamburlaine’s victories. Susan Fleetwood’s Zenocrate, the conqueror’s captive princess, was a frail but clear voice of conscience. And Finney’s Tamburlaine was superb, catching all of the character’s mad fury and reveling in the color of the verse to such an extent that he even discovered a hint of humor in the bloodthirsty bully.' Malcolm MacPherson, ‘King of Carnage’, Newsweek, 18 October 1976

'Hall’s achievement is that he has found an acceptable package for ‘Tamburlaine’. It is neat, formal and with just enough blood to suggest the arteries which are running into rivers offstage. His stage set (designed by John Bury) is basically a white circle with another circle of lights above. It looks like a time machine; and as Tamburlaine’s victims are slaughtered, they stagger on into the circle’s centre for their dying speeches. The drums roll, the lights turn blood-red and screams echo from the loudspeakers. Deaths accomplished, the bodies are lowered, to prevent litter… The one truly frightening moment is reserved for the climax, where the dying Tamburlaine hauls himself up for a last turn in his chariot, drawn by the kings of Trebizon and Soria, and charges Callapine and his army, scattering them before him. This is a powerful effect, and one which almost justifies the restraint of the rest, for, as with Hall’s ‘Hamlet’, the vigour of this ‘Tamburlaine’ is really concentrated upon Finney’s performance.' John Elsom, ‘Gore and trinkets’, The Listener, 14 October 1976

'Unfortunately Peter Hall has followed the stark style of his Hamlet and turned the play into a direct debate with the audience. As if to prove how deep-seated is Tamburlaine’s distrust of democracy, he seldom allows so much as a quorum of actors on the drum-shaped stage for any momentous decision. The rivers of blood which flow tend to be rather academic, technically gory but wanting any reaction from the spectators. Towns are burned to the ground which we never see, emperors are humiliated without us ever tasting their glory. Albert Finney’s Tamburlaine is an irreverent adventurer with a pouter pigeon strut. It has a peasant flashing impudence that would dare the gods to prove him less than themselves. But the towering rhetoric hangs in the empty air for most of the time, like his oft-protested love for Susan Fleetwood’s Zenocrate. Here is the key to the failure of the production to work its ancient magic on a modern audience. Love, like the rest of the passions, does not come alive in debate. It must be demonstrated. I understood the demons that drove Mr Finney onward, but I never felt them.' Jack Tinker, ‘Love’s labours lose out … to a baptism of blood’, The Mail, October 1976

'With Finney in the title role (as for last year’s Hamlet) both star and director seem content to unroll the play again like some vast tapestry, leaving us to pick from it what threads we will. Philip Locke and Robert Edison and Michael Gough hover on the sidelines, bringing exquisite diction to a play about bloodshed and slavery and corruption and death and all the other things that have made Tamburlaine’s life worth living, but the centre of the arena is left to Finney, Denis Quilley (as his father-and-son rivals) and Susan Fleetwood and Barbare Jefford as the respective wives. The four of them slug it out, their sound and fury signifying very little but being nonetheless impressive enough, and as Tamburlaine marches in triumph through Persepolis one starts to long for the colour cameras of Cecil B. de Mille. Only Quilley, beating out his brains on the side of a cage, offers any real counterweight to Finney, but about three and a half hours in there’s a finely judged and beautifully played scene with Diana Quick as Olympia and all in all I’d not have missed any of it. But then I’ve always loved a parade.' Sheridan Morley, ‘Marlowe on Thames’, Punch, 13 October 1976

Give the image with the four of them – kings and wives

'This epic of a ravaging conqueror who razed cities and harnessed captured kings to his golden chariot, is a non-singing opera. And Mr. Hall, the director, presented it as a series of poetic arias in symmetrically balanced tableaux. In John Bury’s glowing costumes and sets, the eye was ravished. Robert Eddison (whose historic fortune it was to speak the first line on this new stage) was a dignified Muslim king, and Susan Fleetwood added to her growing reputation as Tamburlaine’s beautiful Queen Zenocrate. A performance of steely authority came from Brian Cox as one of Tamburlaine’s royal supporters, while Denis Quilley was in fine, baleful form as his mortal enemy Bajazeth and as Bajazeth’s avenging son. But then the whole company responded magnificently to this historic occasion.' Felix Barker, ‘This play does a new theatre proud’, Evening News, 5 October 1976

'Albert Finney, although he still has a tendency to rush and gabble his speeches, gives a very good (but not great) performance as Tamburlaine. He always had a roughness about him – unlike actors of an earlier generation, he has never seemed a gentleman – and even if that has been worn away by the years, he still has a peasant strength that serves him well here. His is a corner cockiness rather than Marlowe’s rustically noble savage. But his performance has a bluntness and directness (and a lyricism when needed) that contrasts beautifully with the effeteness or imperiousness of the kings and emperors he subdues. There is a certain monotony about Tamburlaine’s continual success and excess. Mr. Hall disguises it with some spectacular staging and revels in the bloodiness of the play. Great gouts of blood gush from throats and heads and drip from daggers. And the stage is bathed in red light – accompanied by an electronic stream reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” – every time a king gets his comeuppance.' John Walker, ‘An excellent opener for the Olivier’, Herald Tribune, 9 October 1976

'The omens were not altogether good, since the mantle had fallen on Albert Finney, who has force, size and charisma, but has sometimes been criticized for lack of range and uniformity of delivery. In fact, he confounds the fatalists, at any rate in the first half, when he is swaggering narcissistically round the stage, all bright eyed ambition and gleeful self-assurance… There is something dangerously attractive about this embryo tyrant, an impression Hall’s detached, unjudging and often humorous direction makes no effort to correct.' Benedict Nightingale, ‘The Blood and bombast of Tamburlaine’, The New York Times, 17 October 1976

'Albert Finney, whose performance as Tamburlaine will get better when he does not rush so many speeches into an incomprehensible slur, has the kind of physical authority that makes it credible he would use the Turkish Emperor as a footstool or would slit his son’s throat for refusing to do battle. He ascends the staircase of tyrannical power with mellifluous assurance, baring his teeth with victorious venom as he crushes kings and expressing with baffled awe the wonder that death could ultimately defeat him. It is a towering performance […]. Peter Hall’s direction, although it still has not resolved the problem of how to prevent its many sieges looking like pantomime battles nor how to relieve the monotony of slaughter, nevertheless keeps this kaleidoscopic four hours; traffic on the stage constantly vibrant and tempestuous. On the whole, a splendid production in a magnificent theatre.' Milton Shulman, ‘Surviving a hurricane of a play…’, Evening Standard, 5 October 1976

'[F]or the time being what we have is a capable revival of a rare piece, displaying all the virtues of theatrical workmanship except the presence of a governing idea… It takes the ironies and the cruelties as they come adhering strictly to Marlowe’s own instruction to view Tamburlaine’s “picture in this tragic glass” […]. Mr Hall, again following his author, excludes visible brutality for as long as possible. Battles are represented by light changes and Harrison Birtwistle’s clamorous percussion, after which the Scythian returns leading further potentates in chains… To the end the production retains its neutrality… Altogether an honourable and fittingly ambitious piece of work; but no revelation.' Irving Wardle, Review, The Times, 5 October 1976

'It is an excessively long, tedious display of barbaric pageantry lasting four and a half hours with interval. But there is little chance of dozing off. Three ladies in the orchestra banging loudly on drums to denote scene changes kept me awake. I thanked them not […]. A marathon role for Albert Finney in the title role. But with his full mane of curly hair, and dressed in a gold-encrusted rightly-fitting mini-skirted costume, he struck me more of an overweight dwarf than savage conqueror of Asia. Amid the tumult and rambling speeches it is occasionally possible to detect some restrained acting from Denis Quilley as a defiant Emperor and from Susan Fleetwood as Tamburlaine’s aggrieved wife.' Arthur Thirkell, ‘Marathon of bore and gore’, Daily Mirror, 6 October 1976

Reviews: 

Felix Barker, ‘This play does a new theatre proud’, Evening News, 5 October 1976 

Milton Shulman, ‘Surviving a hurricane of a play…’, Evening Standard, 5 October 1976

J. C. Trewin, The Birmingham Post, 5 October 1976

B. A. Young, Review, Financial Times, 5 October 1976

John Barber, The Daily Telegraph, 4,5 and 6 October 1976

Michael Billington, The Guardian, 6 October 1976

Arthur Thirkell, ‘Marathon of bore and gore’, Daily Mirror, 6 October 1976

Irving Wardle, Review, The Times, 6 October 1976

R. B. Marriott, Review, The Stage, 7 October 1976 

John Walker, ‘An excellent opener for the Olivier’, Herald Tribune, 9 October 1976

Bernard Levin, The Sunday Times, 10 October 1976

Sheridan Morley, ‘Marlowe on Thames’, Punch, 13 October 1976

John Elsom, ‘Gore and trinkets’, The Listener, 14 October 1976

Brian Moore, ‘Tamburlaine – Defiant voice of a new class’, The News Line, 14 October 1976

Jack Tinker, ‘Love’s labours lose out … to a baptism of blood’, The Mail, October 1976

Benedict Nightingale, ‘The Blood and bombast of Tamburlaine’, The New York Times, 17 October 1976

Malcolm MacPherson, ‘King of Carnage’, Newsweek, 18 October 1976

John Heilpern, The Observer Magazine, 19 December 1976

Michael Coveney, Plays and Players, December 1976, 22-3

Sybil Truchet, Cahiers Elisabethains, April 1978