It was the surprise hit of the autumn season, selling out for its entire run and inspiring rave reviews. But now the producers of Tamburlaine the Great have come under fire for censoring Christopher Marlowe’s 1580s masterpiece to avoid upsetting Muslims.
Audiences at the Barbican in London did not see the Koran being burnt, as Marlowe intended, because David Farr, who directed and adapted the classic play, feared that it would inflame passions in the light of the London bombings.
Simon Reade, artistic director of the Bristol Old Vic, said that if they had not altered the original it “would have unnecessarily raised the hackles of a significant proportion of one of the world’s great religions”.
The burning of the Koran was “smoothed over”, he said, so that it became just the destruction of “a load of books” relating to any culture or religion. That made it more powerful, they claimed.
Members of the audience also reported that key references to Muhammad had been dropped, particularly in the passage where Tamburlaine says that he is “not worthy to be worshipped”. In the original Marlowe writes that Muhammad “remains in hell”.
The censorship aroused condemnation yesterday from senior figures in the theatre and scholars, as well as religious leaders. Terry Hands, who directed Tamburlaine for the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1992, said: “I don’t believe you should interfere with any classic for reasons of religious or political correctness.”
Charles Nicholl, the author of The Reckoning: The Murder of Christopher Marlowe, said it was wrong to tamper with Marlowe because he asked “uncomfortable and confrontational questions—particularly aimed at those that held dogmatic, religious views”. He added: “Why should Islam be protected from the questioning gaze of Marlowe? Marlowe stands for provocative questions. This is a bit of an insult to him.”
Marlowe rivalled Shakespeare as the most powerful dramatist of the Elizabethan period. He died aged 29 in a brawl over a tavern bill. Tamburlaine the Great was written not later than 1587. It tells the story of a shepherd-robber who defeats the king of Persia, the emperor of Turkey and, seeing himself as the “scourge of God”, burns the Koran.
Mr Farr reworked the text after the July 7 attacks. The production closed last week. Mr Farr said in a statement: “The choices I made in the adaptation were personal about the focus I wanted to put on the main character and had nothing to do with modern politics.”
But Mr Reade said that Mr Farr felt that burning the Koran “would have been unnecessarily inflammatory”. The play needed to be seen in a 21stcentury context, he believed.He said: “Marlowe was not challenging Muslims, he was attacking theism, saying, ‘I’m God, there isn’t a God’. If he had been in a Christian country, a Judaic country or a Hindu country, it would be their gods he’d be attacking.” He said more people would be insulted by broadening the attack.
Inayat Bunglawala, the media secretary of the Muslim Council of Britain, disagreed, saying: “In the context of a fictional play, I don’t think it will have offended many people.”
Park Honan, Emeritus Professor at the School of English, University of Leeds, and author of Christopher Marlowe: Poet & Spy, said: “It is wrong to tamper with the play, wrong to shorten it and wrong to leave out the burning of the Koran because that is involved with the exposition of Tamburlaine’s character. He’s a false prophet. This is meant to horrify the audience.”