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 solid 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 he 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 who (clue WS). 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 when cut back for modern tastes, and toned down, it is 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. 

Imperium at the Gielgud Theatre review ****

cicero

Imperium I Conspirator and Imperium II Dictator

Gielgud Theatre, Royal Shakespeare Company, 18th July and 25th August 2018

I don’t read much. Don’t have the patience or the imagination. Much easier to get my kicks from the theatre, or from film, where other people can do all the hard work. Also suspect years of reading, writing and talking, to no great effect, in an office, for the greater good of neo-liberal capitalism, has shredded what grey matter I once had. Not like the SO. A voracious reader.

All of which means I have no view on the novelist Robert Harris. Never read anything he has written. Always had him down as a writer of pot-boiling political thrillers. Not even seen any of the film adaptions. On the strength of this majestic entertainment, an adaption of Mr Harris’s trilogy of novels about Cicero adapted by Mike Poulton, I think I might have missed a trick. It looks like Mr Harris’s books would be right up my street and he sounds like a terribly good bloke as well.

So next holiday reading now nailed down what about this RSC blockbuster? Apparently Mike Poulton had to be fairly judicious with what he took from the book, focussing on certain episodes in the maturity of the great orator’s life, but what he has conjured up, together with RSC AD Gregory Doran, is a fantastic slice of theatre. OK so there are times, as in some of Shakespeare’s weaker sections in the history plays, where the shuffling of characters on and off the stage, and the expository repeats, become a bit cumbersome, but generally Mr Poulton and Mr Doran have, through a variety of devices, ensured that, throughout the 7 hours or so of the two plays, we know exactly who is doing what to whom and, mostly, why. We also get an insight into the mind of one of history’s greatest thinkers, (or at least one of the greatest thinkers in a Western culture still in thrall to the Classical), and some universal lessons about the nature of politics and representation, and the symbiosis of word and deed in history, or at least the history of “great men”.

The plays also succeeds thanks to the casting of the two main protagonists. Richard McCabe is a thoroughly convincing Cicero, principled, courageous, sardonic, egocentric. Joseph Kloska as his secretary and our narrator Tiro, is equally impressive even if he has less to work with. There is more than a touch of the buddy movie about their central relationship. The audience is frequently dragged in to proceedings whether as the imagined Senate that Cicero and others address, the mob, or, breaking the wall, as conspirators in the events on stage. Not formally innovative but very satisfying in this kind of “one thing after another” history play. The political canvas, as we pass through Cicero’s election as Consul, his machinations with Catiline, Clodius, Julius Caesar, Mark Antony and, finally, Octavian (Augustus), all to protect the values of the Republic and, take note, the rule of law, is contrasted with the domestic, Cicero’s dysfunctional relationships with wife, family and proteges. If you know your Roman history and/or your Shakespeare, this is a delight. Even if you don’t the touch is so light that it is a breeze to follow.

The staging, against the steps leading up to a pair of giant. mosaic eyes, in Anthony Ward’s set, is as dramatic as it needs to be when serious stuff is playing out, but there is a thread of humour, largely milked by the two leads which prevents it turning into a slog. Sometimes the laughs, and the delivery, edges a little bit towards the Up Pompeii, but this is a good thing in my book, and much better than the alternative of ponderous epic. Composer Paul Englishby and sound designer Claire Windsor have very adroitly managed to plot a way through this tonal warp and weft, not easy to sustain over this length of time. The same is true for Mark Henderson’s lighting composition. Indeed the entire creative crew should be lauded for their studied concentration. It would be easy to let things slide, or for the pace to ease up, when you have this much to show, but, if at any point my concentration wavered, it was my fault not theirs.

With this size of undertaking, 44 named parts and more walk-ons and crowd scenes beyond that, and spanning four decades, most of the cast were doubled up across the two plays. In addition to Cicero and Tiro, Siobhan Redmond as Cicero’s put upon wife Terentia, Jade Croot as his unfortunate daughter Tullia and Paul Kemp as his bluff brother Quintus all stuck to one role, along with Peter de Jersey imperious, (no other adjective will do), Julius Caesar. When he came on all fake chummy to Cicero he captured exactly the air of a big man who knows he can’t be refused. Oliver Johnstone (after young Rufus in Part I) played Octavian with an air of even greater menace as he seized the opportunity given to him by his adoptive father Caesar Mk I. Joe Dixon seemed to relish the roles of, first, entitled aristo Catiline and then, a boozed up Mark Antony, as did Eloise Secker as the scheming Clodia and then Fulvia. This is, unfortunately, not a story with much to offer in the way of female roles, so it was a bit disconcerting, and unusual, to see so many white men on show. Still that was Rome, except that it wasn’t really.

Turning Cicero’s life, through the device of a biography written by his (originally) slave, mediated through millenia of scholarship, a writer of gripping fiction, and then on to the stage, was bound to throw up all sorts of questions about how we interpret the Ancients and how the “principles” they established still inform the world today, politics, democracy and drama, most prominently. Layer that into a fast moving biography, contemporary resonance, (for once not shoehorned in), and a history lesson, and you can see why the team here was pretty much on the case as soon as the ink had dried on the final part of Robert Harris’s trilogy, also entitled Dictator. History does not repeat itself, nor is there some deterministic arc to human progress, but two-bit, populistic tosspot geezers (always men) are ten a penny. Easy to spot, less easy to stop.

For all of you who get sniffy about the RSC and its contribution to the cultural fabric of this country, and, the world, I respectfully suggest you zip it. Here’s a great story, thrillingly told, neither too high or too low brow. Of course, as usual, by the time the Tourist gets round to seeing it and writing about it, it’s pretty much all over but I would hope this adaptation has an afterlife and I for one would love to see more “history” plays delivered in such confident, ambitious style. Like I say, if like me, you just don’t have the attention span to read a book or devote days to a box-set, then this is the thing for you. Proof positive that anyone who thinks theatre is a dreadful, long drawn out bore hasn’t tried and basically doesn’t know what they are talking about.