Two novel versions of Elizabethan history plays.
Dec 31, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 16 • By EVE TUSHNET
There are ambitious decisions, and then there are cocky ones. Washington's Shakespeare Theatre chose to open its new theater space with productions of two plays by Christopher Marlowe, Tamburlaine and Edward II--thus challenging both the theater and the audience.
It's daring, first off, to make a case for the Shakespeare Theatre based not on the Bard but on his less-staged precursor and rival. In implicit argument that Marlowe is worth the attention lavished on him here, the theater expanded its usual para-theatrical programs to include not only lectures and tie-in film screenings, but also a daylong symposium on Marlowe's life and work, a partnership with the Rorschach Theatre Company's production of a biopic called Kit Marlowe, and a reading of The Jew of Malta. (No points for guessing why that one is rarely performed today.)
Then, too, Tamburlaine was chosen in part because its script spans three continents, allowing the theater to go all-out with the elaborate costumes and exotic trappings. The show's program, as the lady behind me noted with faint horror, includes not only a synopsis but a map. Opera-style supertitles inform us that we're in Bithynia, Larissa, and similar Rough Guide to the Ancient World locales.
Staging the two plays together really works. This Tamburlaine, on its own, might come across as three hours of colorfully dressed people hitting each other with sticks; this Edward II is not quite strong enough to stand on its own. But played against one another, they strikingly contrast different stripes of bad kingship, anti-sympathetic tragedy, and directorial styles. They should both be seen, and seen on consecutive or near-consecutive nights if possible.
The plays have a few minor similarities: They won't change the mind of anyone who thinks Marlowe can't write women, for example. Both the demi-tragic Zenocrate and the girlishly demonic Isabella don't quite work as characters. Zenocrate is an attempt to turn "girls like violence" into tragic queenship, and Isabella seems to veer back and forth from self-deluder who just wants her king back to furious dictatress who commits her own adultery in revenge.
Both plays include powerful scenes of humiliation of captives. Tamburlaine walks on his defeated kings, cages them in rags, harnesses them to pull his carriage. Edward is subjected to even more thorough humiliation. These scenes are in a way more disturbing than the scenes of battlefield carnage because they show how imaginative humans are at dehumanizing one another. In Tamburlaine the captives' humiliation is often not even the focus of the scene: The play itself enacts their marginalization, keeping the spotlight on their laughing, exuberant tormentors.
The plays have also an intriguing difference: Allah acts directly in Tamburlaine, whereas the Christian God is treated as a projection of societal power in Edward II. Every time an actor in Tamburlaine declaims about "great Mahomet!" you expect to hear thunderclaps. When Tamburlaine burns the Koran, he immediately falls ill, and begins his final decline. It's impossible to interpret this as coincidence.
By contrast, although churchmen like the ones Edward and Piers Gaveston mocked do play various roles in Edward's downfall--some hastening it, others allowing him sanctuary in a monastery--if God works at all in Edward II he works only through men acting in conflicting, ordinary ways. This makes Tamburlaine a more primary-colors, unsubtle play, but both approaches have their satisfactions.
(Refreshingly, both productions reject opportunities to turn every old play into a Maureen Dowd column. To the extent that there are contemporary resonances in the productions, it's because the cruelty of power, the actions or absence of God, and the tragedies of eros will find resonance in any age.)
The most striking similarity, however, is that both productions feature stars whose personal charisma can sell a deeply unsympathetic character: Tamburlaine is a sociopath and Edward a wastrel.
Avery Brooks's Tamburlaine is transparently having so much fun in the first half of the production that his audience can't help but find him sickly fascinating. Tamburlaine's laughter and his ironic blocking (playing intimidation scenes while lounging on the floor, for example) show an almost inhuman confidence, marking Tamburlaine as a man who can woo any woman and intimidate any foe--except God.
Wallace Acton's Edward II isn't nearly as intimidating. He's childish--like his queen, he seems unable to guess the consequences of his actions--and self-centered. But Acton and director Gale Edwards give us an Edward all but created by his clothes, by his social role. Acton wears his kingly robes like a second skin. His Edward never appears without his crown until he abdicates. There's a terrifically unsympathetic moment in which Edward pleads to be allowed to see his crown again, in almost the same terms he used earlier to plead for a glimpse of his doomed favorite Gaveston. The crown was so much a part of Acton's physical presence that his abdication is felt as an amputation, and his pleas seem the result of phantom pains in the lost limb. When Edward is stripped first of his robes and then of most of his clothing, Acton's physicality makes the humiliation all the more wrenching.
At the Shakespeare Theatre's symposium, Gale Edwards said that different audiences tended to empathize with different characters: On some nights Edward and Gaveston's first kiss drew applause, while on others it brought gasps of dismay. At times, her direction seemed to play up these shifts and ambiguities of sympathy: For example, Isabella, Edward, and Gaveston wear costumes that echo one another, all three in white at the beginning when they're most childlike, then Edward in black and Isabella in Mortimer's green once they begin to battle, then all three back to white for their helpless conclusions. But toward the end of the play Edward's perspective dominates to an extent that insightful costuming choices can't balance.
In the earlier parts of the play, we get lines indicating that Edward's frivolity may be draining the state coffers used to pay soldiers; we see his thoughtlessness; we get to stand outside him, even if only briefly. Yet once Edward's defeats begin, the production burrows so deep inside his own self-indulgent consciousness that it begins to feel like the audience is being bullied into sympathy with this deeply awful king.
In perhaps the most egregious example, Edwards chooses to set the refugee king in front of a stained-glass window depicting Jesus holding a little fluffy lamb--and then pose him so that he mirrors first the lamb, and then Jesus himself. Edward's dead lover appears as a white-winged angel; his assassin, the Luciferian-named Lightborn, gets not only the terrifically scary lines Marlowe wrote (delivered in perfect horror-movie cadences by James Konicek) but also an unnecessarily camp Mephistophelean cloud of acrid smoke to herald his arrival.
This doesn't work because it isn't necessary. Edward's humiliations toward the end are already intense enough. He's taunted, stripped, kicked; he dies by being raped with a poker in a sewer. But he is not a Jesus figure, and presenting him as one is either a tacky form of special pleading, or a misguided decision to trap the audience inside the mind of the king rather than allowing for a competing perspective.
It's possible to direct Edward II so that Edward is basically sympathetic. Derek Jarman did it in 1991 in his unsettling movie, and he did it by being very angry. Outrage, as Harold Bloom has pointed out, is one of the most sympathetic of human emotions. Jarman's obvious fury at church and state give the movie an edge that this more lugubrious production doesn't quite attain.
"Lugubrious" is the last word anyone would associate with this Tamburlaine--or second-to-last, after "self-reflective." One of the difficulties of staging Marlowe is that when we hear that rangy, earthy, secretive Elizabethan language, we start expecting Shakespeare: troubled and divided consciousnesses, men and women who don't know their roles or their genres, characters who catch themselves in their own nets of words.
Neither Edward nor Tamburlaine fits this pattern. Neither of them gets even the weird, halting fit of self-recognition that Richard III gets in his almost goofily unwieldy "Richard is Richard; that is, I am I" speech. They get defeated, and that makes them grieve; but it doesn't, fundamentally, make them change.
Eve Tushnet, a writer in Washington, blogs at eve-tushnet.blogspot.com.