Tamburlaine at the RSC Swan Theatre review ****

Tamburlaine

Swan Theatre, RSC Stratford, 17th November 2018

If you scroll down you will see a so-called review of the play Switzerland. Though focussed on the author Patricia Highsmith it referenced her most famous character Tom Ripley. One of the most beguiling bad boys in fictional history. However he was a novice compared to Kit Marlowe’s Tamburlaine. Assuming you accept that Tamburlaine is, by and large, fictional, even if he is supposed to be based on Amir Timur, the founder of the Timurid dynasty in the C14 and ruler of vast swathes of Eurasia and defeater of the Mamluks of Egypt and Syria, the Ottomans and the Sultan of Delhi. Self-proclaimed inheritor of the legacy of Genghis Khan’s Mongol Empire two centuries earlier, self-titled “Sword of Islam” and possibly responsible for the death of 5% of the world’s population. His descendants went on to rule much of Central Asia and found the Mughal Dynasty in India.

Now Marlowe being Marlowe (I’ve banged on before about just how transgressive he was), and I am guessing not armed with much in the way of facts, it will have been the dramatic potential in Timur’s rise from obscurity (not true) to ruler of a huge chunk of the known world – now southeastern Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran, through Central Asia encompassing part of Kazakhstan, Afghanistan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, and even easternmost China – that drew him in. Remember the “real” Tamburlaine came knocking on the door of western Europe, in the process nullifying the Ottoman “threat”, he destroyed the renegade Church of the East and had diplomatic dealings with France and notably Castile. So he was an ambivalent figure in Renaissance Europe by the time Marlowe came to write his doorstopper in 1587/88, aged just 23. But he was also exotic and bloodthirsty, a combination guaranteed to pull the punters in to the Southwark playhouses.

And it certainly succeeded. Along with Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, Tamburlaine revolutionised the English stage and laid down the building blocks for the great tragedies of the Jacobean period including those of you know how. Thrilling plots, complex themes and richly imagined, evocative blank verse. All of which is still apparent today as this production made abundantly clear. Now that isn’t to say that Marlowe didn’t go on a bit, the original is in two parts and you wouldn’t get much change out of seven hours if you watched them back to back. And the language, in keeping with the action, is not what you would call understated. But cut back, and toned down, it is still impossible not to be swept along by the epic events, the OTT posturing and the ostentatious language.

Michael Boyd’s production doesn’t attempt to dilute the drama. Tom Piper’s set may be minimalist in design and intent but when required, cages, platforms, pits, it really delivers. The costumes may be standard issue generic every-age militaria albeit with a twist, a bit of sheepskin here, some leather gloves there, white flowing robes for the whiff of the Asiatic/Oriental, but they are, to use the dreadful contemporary idiom, on point. The themes emerge in an entirely extemporary way: Marlowe the atheist’s dismissal of all religions, his celebration of, and warning against, the rise of the “individual” against the levers of power, the rise of the populist strongman, the creation of Empire, the threats and opportunities wrought by globalisation and exchange.

For this, the episodic tale of Tamburlaine’s violent journey, is, at its heart, a hyped-up history play. There are some remarkable theatrical devices on show from the masterly Mr Boyd and the creative team to bring this to life (and death). The painting on of stage blood, with bucket and brush, for each victim, first by young Callapine (here Dev Prabhakar), the murdered son of the Turkish emperor Bajazeth (a supreme Sagar I M Arya), and then an older version played by Rosy McEwen after her previous character Zenocrate, Tamburlaine’s beloved wife. had died. The “ghosts” live on then, on the fringes of the action, underlining  the price that is paid for Tamburlaine’s power grab. Callapine comes back to seek, but not take, revenge. Whilst the cage in which Tamburlaine imprisons Bajazeth, and on which he and then his wife Zanina (Debbie Korley) (spoiler alert), dash out their brains, is integral to the play it still presents a startling image when it first appears, as does Tamburlaine’s chariot, pulled by his enslaved enemies.

The platform at the back of the stage, and that which descends from the ceiling, are barely more than the maintenance men might employ at your office, but, when some soon to be vanquished unfortunate uses it to lord it over Tamburlaine and his generals, you are struck by the simplicity of the symbolism. A plastic curtain lends the air of an abattoir, undeniably apposite. Even something as innocuous as Bajazeth pronouncing Tamburlaine’s name in a Somerset, (it must be so as we Devonians are sophisticates), accent, mocking the Scythian shepherd’s upbringing, has resonance. This, BTW, is Marlowe’s chosen origin story for Tamburlaine, a long way from reality in fact and time.

All these touches (have I mentioned the tongue?) are reinforced by a muscular score from composer James Jones and complimentary sound and lighting from Claire Windsor and Colin Grenfell (who bathes the Swan thrust stage in a golden glow, gold being the dominant tone of the text). Much was made of Evelyn Glennie’s percussive score for Troilus and Cressida (which I saw through RSC live), which, like Gregory Doran’s production overall, was only a qualified success. Here the sound and score was spot on. 

The production also succeeds because the cast are fully committed. Jude Owusu, in his first major role, belts it out of the park, heads out, picks the ball up, and belts it out again. He is so, so good. And he does it without succumbing to shouty histrionics: he is just well hard from the moment we first meet him. Hard to believe this was the same man who played Charles Darnay in the execrable Tale of Two Cities at Regents Park (though he was the best thing in it). I was much taken with the way David Rubin and Riad Richie painstakingly built out the characters of Techelles and Usumcasane, Tamburlaine’s two lifelong sidekicks. Rosy McEwen was an ethereal Zenocrate, the daughter of the Soldan of Egypt, who Tamburlaine abducts, but with whom she eventually falls in love. 

Mark Hadfield, as he usually does, stood out as the Soldan, as Mycetes, the King of Persia, the first to underestimate Tamburlaine’s military skill, and as Almeda, Callapine’s keeper. His comic timing, for there is comedy amongst the carnage, is superb. Who else? David Sturzaker, who amazingly played Cosroe, Mycetes’s treacherous brother, the King of Fez, then in part 2, Sigismund, King of Hungary and finally the Governor of Babylon (whose inhabitants are all drowned), James Tucker similarly takes on the roles of Meander, Mycetes’s adviser (channeling his inner accountant), the Governor of Damascus, who doesn’t have much a plan to assuage Tamburlaine’s wrath, the Lord of Bohemia, and Perdicas, a wheedling lawyer. Raj Bajaj, notably as Tamburlaine’s insufficiently macho son Calyphas, Salman Akhtar, Ralph Davis, James Clyde, Ross Green, Zainab Hasan, Debbie Korley and Vivienne Smith also take on multiple roles. Edmund Wiseman, who is excellent as Theridamas, does not, only because he, wisely it turns out, defects to Tamburlaine right at the start and sticks with him. 

There is an excellent programme note from voice and text coach Alison Bomber describing how she encouraged the actors to “connect voice, body and imagination” to bring Marlowe’s text to contemporary life, to bring light and shade, to vary the rhythm of the knotty language, so that the verse feels like speech to us. In this she and the cast succeeded admirably. As you can tell a lot happens even in the cut-down version of Tamburlaine. He and his mates get about a bit and come across, and invariably kill, a lot of people, as you have probably surmised from the above. A quick speed-read of a synopsis, as always for Renaissance plays, never does any harm, but I have to say, even with all the multiple casting and olde-worlde talking, this really is a breeze to follow. 

I get that Marlowe, and for different reasons, Jonson, are destined always to lurk in Shakespeare’s shadow, but with a production as good as this it leaves me wanting more. And wishing the poor chap, Marlowe, that is, had stayed away from Deptford that night. 

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