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Home :: Archive :: 1997 :: September ::
In-the-round Performance of Tamburlaine I
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 8.0976.  Tuesday, 30 September 1997.

From:           Norm Holland <
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Date:           Monday, 29 Sep 97 09:59:18 EDT
Subject:        In-the-round Performance of Tamburlaine I

Forgive me another long posting, but this is on an altogether different
topic.

Saturday night, wife Jane and I went to a Way-Off-Broadway production of
Marlowe's Tamburlaine the Great, Part I (1587).  Something we read said
that this play had not been given in New York in fifty years.  So we
went.  The American Theatre of Actors were staging it in an outdoor
playground space back of a community center and police station.  The
lighting and staging were monotonous, the costuming makeshift, the fight
scenes unconvincing, the actors' voices strained, their talents, to put
it tactfully, undeveloped.  To make matters worse, it was cold and the
only seating was two single rows of benches.  Sirens, auto horns, and
trucks beep-beeping as they backed up often overpowered the actors.  All
in all it was a hard night at the theater.

Jane and I talked about the staging and acting afterwards, comparing it
to our more vivid experience at the restored Globe this summer.  This
theater-space was rectangular.  A platform at one end allowed for
thrones, and most of the action took place there.  The 20-person
audience filled two single benches facing each other, extending away
from the platform.  Thus, they outlined a rectangular open space between
the benches.  In it, some of the action, all the fighting, and the one
belly dance took place.  The far end of the space was blank, and there
Bajazet suffered in his cage and there was occasional swordplay.

The actors played Marlowe's declamatory style as one would in a modern
illusionist theater.  That is, if a speech was not directed to another
character, the actor would talk it to the far wall, to the sky, or just
off.  I take it the premise was that we were watching someone make a
speech to the world at large or overhearing someone talking to himself.
In other words, it was the premise of the fourth-wall stage, the
invisible audience, although this was anything but.  We looked right
through the actors to our fellow-sufferers across from us.

At one point the actors did address us in the audience. Brandishing
swords, they shouted a series of vows and menaces.  They marched along
our row of benches, and as they did so, they made strong eye contact
with each and every one of us as they proclaimed some threat or other.
The effect was electrifying, unnerving, scary, really, the actors being
only a few feet away from us.  It was the one strong moment in the
production-for me, anyway.

By contrast, we watched Bajazet suffering in his cage, shouting his
curses and threats, sometimes at Tamberlaine at the other end of the
space, on the throne, often just to the heavens.  Jane and I thought how
much more effective he would have been had he addressed his soliloquies
frankly to us, the audience.  As the actors had done with their earlier
threats.  As, say, a modern political speaker would: talking to the
crowd, even pointing to someone in the crowd as if he were singling
someone out from the multitudes.

Is there a mode here for Globe-style or theater-in-the-round productions
of Renaissance plays?  To abandon the illusionist premise for doing
asides, soliloquies, and declamations?  To replace it with a frank
talking to the audience?  A recognition that the audience is there,
thereby perhaps engaging the audience in the play as a mutual
performance, as we saw (on occasion) at the Globe in London?

--Best, Norm
 

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