Wednesday, July 6

Spotlight on actor Alan Cox and the Marlowe Sessions at The Malthouse Theatre, Canterbury

For lovers of the classical canon, experiencing the making of this immersive audio recording just begs for your attendance.  With the cream of the classical acting crop taking part, the Marlowe Sessions feature all seven of Christopher Marlowe’s plays and performances of his poetry.  Our Deputy Editor, Caroline Worswick chatted to actor Alan Cox who takes on the role of Tamburlaine in Parts 1 & 2.

To find out more about this unique venture and to book tickets, go to – https://malthousetheatre.co.uk/the-marlowe-sessions/  

Can you explain what the Marlowe Sessions are, and what your involvement is?

The Marlowe Sessions is the brainchild of Ray Mia and Mark Rice-Oxley and involves the audio capture of the complete dramatic works of Christopher Marlowe on the stage of the Malthouse Theatre in Canterbury, I am in four of the seven plays, namely Dido, Queen of Carthage, Tamburlaine 1 & 2 and The Massacre of Paris, the ones I am not in being The Jew of Malta, Edward II, and Doctor Faustus.  There are onstage musicians playing compositions by Tarek Merchant on Elizabethan instruments which include themes that recur throughout all seven plays. We wear outfits designed by Ti Green which are colour coded to each play. There is an ensemble of 20 or so actors with parts in up to four of the plays.  Each company works with one of the three performance directors – Abigail Rokison-Woodall who is hugely knowledgeable about working text for actors in early modern drama, and lectures at the Shakespeare Institute in Stratford-upon-Avon, Stephen Unwin who has vast experience across many theatrical genres, and Phillip Breen who recently had a great success with a tour of A Comedy of Errors for the Royal Shakespeare Company.  I was invited to be involved at the conception stage of the project at the end of last year and participated in a workshop back in April. I work with a group called The School of Night who specialise in improvised Shakespeare. We take our name from the secret group of heretics that some believe counted Christopher Marlowe among its members. It was felt that my experience of spontaneous Elizabethan style invention might be a useful ingredient in the mix.

I read a description of the Marlowe Sessions as being ‘immersive audio theatre’, and a ‘sonic footprint of theatre in Elizabethan England’.  What can an audience member expect from their visit?

The audience bring a theatrical dimension out of the writing which can be lacking in the recording of a classic play for radio. With an immersive audio capture the performance venue is rigged extensively with microphones and the performers wear individual clip microphones. When the sound is mixed, (I think there are around 97 tracks), you can listen on your headphones and have the impression of being in the middle of the action. The audience attending gives their attention to a theatrical encounter in the conventional way, and the actors play for and with them, but the audio capture gives the listener an immersive experience. 

As your main involvement in the Marlowe Sessions is playing the title role of Tamburlaine (Parts 1 & 2), can you give us a summary of the plot and tell us about the character of Tamburlaine?

I will run with the RSC’s summary – ‘The Persian Emperor, Mycetes, wants to send his army to destroy the Scythian shepherd and bandit, Tamburlaine. The Emperor’s brother, Cosroe, agrees to help, but secretly plots the overthrow of Mycoses to take the throne for himself.

Meanwhile, in Scythia, Tamburlaine has captured and successfully wooed Zenocrate, the daughter of the Egyptian Soldan. Mycetes’ soldiers arrive to attack Tamburlaine – but he convinces them, as well as Cosroe, to join forces with him against Mycetes instead.’ (Extract from RSC).

Tamburlaine is a Scythian shepherd with strong ambitions and a sense of being chosen by destiny who leads a gang of mercenaries who attempt to conquer territories throughout Asia. He describes himself as the ‘scourge of god’ and ‘the terror of the world’ but the notion that he is fighting as a Christian king is mysterious. His love for Zenocrate, the daughter of the Sultan of Egypt, is a mysterious source of conflict and motivation for him.    

Christopher Marlowe had a relatively short career due to his unfortunate early death at age 29.  What are the qualities within his work that inspired this dedication via the Marlowe Sessions?

Marlowe feels like the punk to Shakespeare’s establishment figure. At some point the Stratford bard seems to have been enlisted in a public relations project to legitimise the ascent of the House of Tudor whereas the Canterbury cobbler’s son is more of a masterless man. With the bombastic nature of his speech, this poet dramatist set a bar that Shakespeare reached for and ultimately surmounted. But who knows what Marlowe might have gone on to write if he had not been stabbed to death at the age of 29. The impression one gets from his fellow playwright of the period, Thomas Kyd was that he was a big-mouthed firebrand who liked stirring things up and getting into trouble. His language is lavish, potent, and sexual. It is visceral in its expression of extreme emotion, and it is a rewardingly intense experience to work on so many of his plays in one go.

There has been much speculation as to whether Marlowe influenced or helped to write some of Shakespeare’s early plays, what is your view on this?

There is a torture banquet in Tamburlaine Part 1 which could have influenced the gory banquet in Titus Andronicus.  Aaron, the unrepentant villain in Titus shares many qualities with Barabas in The Jew of Malta. Likewise, the cruelty visited upon Edward II and his poetic sensibilities can find some comparison in the Richard II by Shakespeare’s hand. There are also echoes of the bombastic language of Tamburlaine in the rallying speeches of Henry V. In Dido, Queen of Carthage there is an extended section when Aeneas talks about the fall of Troy and the murder of King Priam. One wonders if Shakespeare is burlesquing Marlowe’s style when the Prince of Denmark invites the strolling player to speak a famous speech on arriving in Elsinore. 

Your career has been long and varied, was it a conscious decision to focus on Elizabethan theatre in both your scripted work and as an improviser with The School of Night?

I think a lot of it has to do with growing up around theatre folk and attending a lot of classical theatre as a child.  When I was 17 my father Brian Cox was part of a very exciting season at the Royal Shakespeare Company and had a great success as Titus Andronicus. The Swan had only been open a couple of years and had emerged as a unique platform for early modern texts with the stripping away of excessive production design. Seeing actors such as Alun Armstrong, Anthony Sher and Fiona Shaw on the Swan stage inspired a commitment to theatre in me which places the actor and the spoken word at its centre. When the season moved from Stratford to London in 1988, the company staged a fantastic play by Howard Barker called The Bite of the Night which was set in the ruins of an abandoned university and simultaneously during the fall of Troy. I remember thinking, ‘wow this stuff is so epic in its nature and its ability to get you right in the gut!’  I think it was the work of that company which I followed as a teenage fanboy that motivated me to go and get a classical training at drama school.  Pretty soon after graduating, I did a season with the RSC followed by a run of shows at the National. It was while doing projects at the National Theatre studio that I got to know Ken Campbell. His world of theatre and the talent of the people who came into his orbit has opened up the community of folk with whom I make improvised theatre.

Since coming back to work following the pandemic, are you finding that there is plenty of work out there? 

The professional exigency of self-taping for acting work has become more established over the last few years.  It is possible to audition for a role without going into a room or ever meeting the director or casting director.  Some auditions just disappear into the ether never to be heard of again, sometimes you get a call back or a zoom meeting, and very occasionally you might book a job! I have a sense of the momentum of things picking up for me personally this year. The most exciting thing on the first day of the Marlowe Sessions, was being in a room of twenty performers with classical acting chops many of whom I knew, making jokes one minute and turning our concentration to the job in hand when necessary.  Rehearsing the jig that begins each play flashed me back to dance class at drama school and company work at the RSC and the National. The feeling of being back to work is reassuring and it was hugely pleasing to look around the room on the first day of the read through week and see the faces of Michael Maloney, Amanda Ryan, Zubin Varla, Elliot Cowan, and Amber James who participated in the workshop in April as well as being introduced to some new friends. There are some wondrous actors with considerable acting chops on this gig…it’s just joyous, really joyous!  

Biography

Theatre: Uncle Vanya, Hamlet, Opening Skinner’s Box, Forty Years On, The Divided Laing, Betrayal, The Caretaker, The Tempest, Frost Nixon, Much Ado About Nothing.

Film: The Dictator, Contagion, Ladies in Lavender, Mrs Dalloway, An Awfully Big Adventure, Young Sherlock Holmes, Not Only But Always.

TV: Lucan, MI High, Custer, Housewife 49, Mrs David, Midsomer Murders, The Odyssey, Mrs David.    

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