Michael Boyd is back at the RSC, having stood down as Artistic Director in 2012, and he’s brought with him a triumph of bloody proportions. This production of Christopher Marlowe’s two-part epic Tamburlaine is a prime example of how entertaining an early modern revival can be when the director combines gory realism with a playful disregard for the fourth wall, presenting a play acutely aware of its own excessive pageantry and theatrics.
“A triumph of bloody proportions”
Tamburlaine the Great was written early in Marlowe’s career and, despite containing highly controversial views on religion and sovereignty for the time, proved so popular that it was promptly followed by a sequel. Based on the history of the bandit Amir Timur, who came to conquer swathes of land in Asia and across Europe, the plot follows Tamburlaine’s unstoppable rise to emperorship as he overthrows all in his path. The main difficulties in staging these plays lie in their large ensembles and an extremely demanding lead role comprising of multiple rich and challenging speeches. Fortunately, both cast and lead proved more than equal to the task. Boyd’s production actively drew attention the ludicrously high pile of bodies accumulated by Tamburlaine’s ambition to conquer all. It acknowledged that the audience might be unable to distinguish between the many, many different characters appearing across both plays and the succession of kings usurped. The casting cleverly allowed actors to bring their past lives as deceased characters into their subsequent roles, developing a continuing thread throughout both plays.
Another problem for audiences used to seeing Shakespearean antiheroes like Macbeth and Richard III facing numerous obstacles on the rise to power is that Tamburlaine is an unstoppable force who appears invincible. Only three events shatter his cool exterior: the defiance of his eldest son, his wife’s death and the realisation of his own mortality. Each of these moments occurs towards the end of the play, which means that for the majority of the run time the audience is left to watch Tamburlaine conquer a succession of kingdoms with relative ease with nobody coming close to challenging him. Jude Owusu was magnetic, charismatic and commanding Tamburlaine. He began as a charming sweet-talker; a shepherd with startling ambition and the self-confidence and rhetorical and military skill to acquire it, but Owusu’s Tamburlaine gradually unravels into a crazed psychopath. Tamburlaine becomes the ultimate tyrant, a man whose potential for violence can be sensed continuously simmering below the surface. The moment in which he manhandles the corpse of his wife with selfish greed rather than loving care is indicative of the worst examples of violence in this production; needless, brutal and self-indulgent.
“A dark farce: a relentless display of elemental violence with its tongue lodged firmly in its cheek”
The gradual passage of time, represented by the development of the costumes and weaponry (animal-skin jackets turn to body armour, to leather jackets and then to formal suit jackets, whilst daggers develop into guns) and the continual references to countries and kingdoms, empires, nationalities and races, the globe encompassed by the walls of the theatre is what amplifies the epic proportions of these two plays. In a lesser production, the continual cycle of death and usurpation might have become formulaic and repetitive. Each performer would return to the stage as a new character, with some indication of their previous end, thus reflecting their own accumulation of mutilation as the production progressed. For instance, one actor whose neck was snapped early in the production returned later wearing a neck brace to widespread laughter. The production also made excellent use of its audience, with one early speech incorporating the name ‘Sheila’ into their speech and Mark Hadfield being a sure-fire scene stealer whenever he appeared, particularly as the tantrum-prone King Mycetes.
Despite this inventive level of artifice, Boyd was not afraid to indulge in savage realism where necessary. For instance, during one scene in the second part, a fake tongue was plucked from an actor’s mouth to alarming effect, while one usurped king was forced to eat a real chicken leg after having stamped on it in protest of his confinement in a tiny cage. These powerful and unexpected moments ensured that the production operated on many layers and kept the audience unsettled, unsure whether to laugh or be very, very afraid. Though brutal and chaotic, filled with myriad kings and tyrants, Boyd’s direction ensures that alliances and conflicts are always entirely clear, utilising the intimate space of the Swan Theatre to full advantage and making the audience complicit in the action. This production might be best described as a dark farce: a relentless display of elemental violence with its tongue lodged firmly in its cheek.
Emily Champion and Ronan Hatfull saw Tamburlaine performed on Thursday 30th August. Tamburlaine is running in the Swan Theatre in Stratford Upon Avon until 1 December 2018. Tickets can be purchased here.