Jude Owusu (Tamburlaine) and captives . Credit: Ellie Kurttz, RSC
Tamburlaine by Christopher Marlowe – Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
For those who remember the RSC’s 1990 Tamburlaine with Anthony Sher, the revival of this once-in-a-generation play is both a rare treat and an alarming marker of passing time. Marlowe’s works are not frequently performed because, while they include exquisite poetry, their plotting, pacing and characterisation are still works in progress. Tamburlaine, dating from 1588, is a spectacular, sprawling historical epic that clearly prefigures Shakespeare’s Henry VI trilogy of only a few years later. It is flawed, but Michael Boyd’s production in the Swan Theatre makes a triumphant case for its presence on the modern stage.
Tamburlaine is a shepherd from Scythina (now Uzbekistan), based on the 14th century Central Asian emperor Timur, who conquered a vast empire. Tamburlaine defeats the Egyptians, the Ottomans and the Persians, conquering much of Africa, Asia and the Middle East. Eventually he dies en route to China. Tamburlaine’s feats are performed with an unremitting brutality: he simply slaughters anyone in his way, drowning entire cities and overthrowing the mightiest of emperors. This is a tough part to play, as there is little insight available in Tamburlaine’s inner life as he performs these colossal deeds. It requires an epic, assured lead performance, exactly what Jude Owusu delivers. With one previous appearance at Stratford behind him in a small part, this is a break-through role for Owusu who bestrides the stage like the scourge of God he proclaims himself to be. Onstage throughout, he radiates unearthly calm as, smiling, he snaps necks, slaughters virgins and murders his own son for not liking war. He speaks the ornate complex verse with a naturalness that does not undermine the delights of Marlowe’s poetry. He also takes the limited opportunities Marlowe provides to reveal the man behind the killing machine. In an astonishing scene he flails around the stage in grief, hauling the slack-limbed corpse of his wife as the audience watches in horror. It is an epic performance that drives the entire play.
Boyd’s direction makes reference to his famous cycle of Shakespeare’s Histories for the RSC. The many killings are stylised as characters are daubed with blood, or have a bucket of it emptied over their heads by a small boy. When their scenes are done they rise and walk from the stage to join the swelling ranks of ghosts. Recurring performers help to make sense of the repetitious events, as successive mighty emperors are overthrown. Mark Hadfield plays self-satisfied, cowardly rulers inclined to foot-stamping tantrums. James Tucker reappears under several regimes as an unscrupulous, opportunistic civil servant. Sagar I M Arya delivers a fine performance the grandest of all the rulers, Bajazeth, who falls the furthest, bashing his own brains out on the bars of his prison cage, in an infamous scene. Even more striking is Zanab Hassan as his wife Olympia, whose death in the manner follows a wild, hallucinatory soliloquy. Tamburlaine’s henchmen, especially David Rubin, are violent, physical assured presences.
Rose McEwen, who plays Tamburlaine’s queen Zenocrate, kidnapped and forced to marry him, succeeds in suggesting an ambiguity that overshadows her role as wife, a tough ask in a play that seems to pass over her violent abduction. In a powerful moment, Boyd has her stiffened corpse jerk back in to life and become Callapine, Bajazeth and Olympia’s avenging son. The play is staged against little more than a backdrop of plastic sheets, but the characters and set pieces provide the scenery in Tom Piper’s design. Doomed kings wear gilt brocade in their coats and their golden circlets tumble from their heads as Tamburlaine’s desert camouflaged thugs cut them apart. In a famous scene the stage becomes a calvacade of death as defeated Asian kings, harnessed to Tamburlaine’s cart, draw him like horses followed by his capering retinue and the embalmed corpse of his dead wife, seated in a chair. This grim carnival brings the wonder and the terror of Marlowe’s shepherd emperor to life in a production that gives an almost faultless account of a defective but fascinating play.