First Nighter: 'Tamburlaine Parts I and II,' 'Tristan & Yseult' Blood Spillage

The blood in Kneehigh's Tristan & Yseult is less than what's in Tamburlaine Parts I and II and is stylized. Emma Rice, the company founder and adapter here of the Cornish myth has something other than seeing red about which she wants to discourse.
11/28/2014 05:32 pm ET Updated Jan 28, 2015

Late in the Kneehigh production of Tristan & Yseult, at St. Ann's Warehouse, a character says, "It's hard to keep things white." She's referring to how easily white apparel can be soiled, often by blood.

I'd been thinking the same thing, since my attending the evening performance of Tristan & Yseult, followed my presence at a matinee performance of Christopher Marlowe's Tamburlaine, Parts I and II in the Theatre for a New Audience version, at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center. During the current run there, buckets of blood are being spilled daily.

And I mean the "buckets" reference literally. In this undertaking, a young boy carrying a bucket often arrives to pour (stage) blood over yet another of the marauding Tamburlaine's victims. The soakings happen so often to any of the characters who unwisely choose to wear white that I'd made a note about it.

"Anything white," I'd written, and that's even before a figure in modern dress -- a suit, tie and white shirt -- showed up late in proceedings, where otherwise Tom Piper's costumes were armor-era specific. Was the contemporary get-up intended as a reminder that such things go on today? Never mind. It's just that before long the pristine white shirt was, you guessed it, covered with blood.

Director Michael Boyd has conflated Marlowe's plays into one three-hour treatment interrupted by a single half-hour intermission. A patron can't help thinking the interval is that long in order to afford stagehands time to wipe up the blood spilled in the first half. After all, in the second act so much more will drench the floor and the long transparent plastic curtain hung at the back of the thrust stage that another intense cleaning will be necessary.

Let's just say director-editor Boyd has the courage of his theatrical convictions. Wars are marked and marred by bloodshed, and he's out to get that across as graphically as he can. Keep in mind that Boyd headed the Royal Shakespeare Company from 2002 to 2012 and during his reign offered Shakespeare's history plays at Stratford-upon-Avon and North London's Roundhouse in some of the most stunning productions I've ever seen.

So, not so much despite the bloodbath on view here as because of it, he's perpetuated another stunner in this Tamburlaine. It's a must-see for anyone interested in what a top-flight director can do with a two-part classic that few directors even want to take on. Certainly, the works don't often show up on these shores.

One reason for the infrequent appearance is that while the plays are bold and shocking, they're not multi-dimensional. The brilliant Marlowe (1564-1593) was only 23 when they were first presented in 1587. They're a young man's flights of fancy. You might say they're full of sound and fury but signifying if not nothing, then not a great deal of emotional depth.

In the course of the two parts, Tamburlaine (John Douglas Thompson) begins by abducting Zenocrate (Merritt Janson), who's meant to be another's bride, before he sets out to depose every monarch ruling in a wide swath around the eastern end of the Mediterranean. On he goes trampling over everything and everyone in his path through the Ottoman Empire, Persia and Central Asia. Before he's finished in this outing, he's perched atop a carriage that contains a lower cage heaped with gold crowns.

To say Marlowe is repetitious only suggests the problem. On the other hand, the iambic pentameter in which Tamburlaine expresses himself is mesmerizing. The crude warrior definitely has the gift of gorgeous gab. As he approaches each realm he plans to conquer, he addresses the rulers he's about to bloody with irresistible rhetoric. He's even high-toned when insisting that Calyphas (James Udom), the eldest of his three sons, is cowardly and deserves to be done in.

Marlowe's Tamburlaine is so infallibly victorious -- with percussionist Arthur Solari, in a niche above the stage, accompanying his destructive path with unceasing cacophony -- that he meets no foe worthy of him. He's only vanquished at last by illness. When onlookers are longing to see him get a comeuppance, this demise feels like a cheat. But apparently Elizabethan audiences were thrilled with it just as it is.

The imposing Thompson, who's become one of today's most accomplished classical actors, is astonishing for both stamina and declaratory prowess. How does any actor remember the order in which Tamburlaine's speeches go, let alone memorize them? Thompson has no problem with his myriad lines.

Many of the other cast members, all doing Boyd proud, take on several roles. This means that Saxon Palmer, for one, gets to be bloodied again and again. After a while, the bloodstained actors become a metaphor for Marlowe repeating himself. More than that, the violence in Tamburlaine takes on the air of Marlowe's foreseeing his own death. When he was 29, he was slain in a barroom brawl.

Listening to this bard's poetry throughout the Tamburlaine parts and aware that Shakespeare and Marlowe were great pals and influences on each other, anyone might entertain the thought that had Marlowe lived longer, his output as he and friend Will continued to challenge each other, would likely have been more memorable than his still exciting Tamburlaine dramas.
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The blood in Kneehigh's Tristan & Yseult is less than what's in Tamburlaine Parts I and II and is stylized. Emma Rice, the company founder and adapter here of the Cornish myth -- with writers Carl Grose and Anna Maria Murphy -- has something other than seeing red about which she wants to discourse.

Like Boyd, she's greatly theatrical with the matter. On a Bill Mitchell set that conjures a one-ring circus, she begins by having Yseult (Hannah Vassallo) and her French-speaking Tristan (Dominic Marsh) enjoy their infatuation, despite Yseult's obligation to older, less buff King Mark (Mike Shepherd). In one sequence, the young lovers swing from separate ropes in giddy infatuation.

Their fun is augmented by a good deal of cast buffoonery, so much so that before the first-act ends, the goofiness has become attenuated. The cuteness, which is narrated by a character identified as Whitehands (Kirsty Woodward, in an Igor Cassini-like suit, pillbox hat and gloves), goes on too long.

This isn't to say the clowning by Niall Ashdown as Yseult's nurse Brangian, Damon Daunno as King Mark's right-hand man Frocin, along with Robert Lukay and Tom Jackson Greaves doesn't continue to amuse, often as they scamper about in knitted hoods reminiscent of chain-mail head coverings.

The second Tristan & Yseult act is when Rice comes to her deliberate point. Whitehands has been talking about her place among the unloved. A neon sign above the set reads "The Club of the Unloved." (The band on an upper level plays, among other songs of love-gone-wrong, "Perfidia" and "Love Hurts.")

The message Rice forcibly wants to stress is that the passion shared by Tristan and Yseult isn't available to everyone, is perhaps available only to the few. Others, like Whitehands, may witness it but never get to share in it. They're condemned to one-sided romances. The white-gloved woman asks, "What becomes of so much wasted love?" While she's imploring, Richard Wagner's "Liebestod" roils, an homage to the Tristan-Yseult devotion, even if their love has been consummated but not fully requited.

Love both requited and un- is apparently an abiding theme for Rice, whose inventive Brief Encounter pastiche is what first earned her and Kneehigh stateside praise. (How personal a condition is unsatisfying love for Rice, a spectator could wonder?) Again in her Brief Encounter and against musical underscoring -- Rachmaninoff, as Noel Coward used in his film -- a pair of lovers have a short-lived but all-encompassing affair.

So at this point Rice, like Marlowe, has two companion parts. It'll be interesting to see if she comes up with another to complete a love trilogy. Maybe Rice fans can second-guess her by combing through accounts of lovers who live out their mutual feelings while classical music throbs away in the background.