Tamburlaine, RSC, Stratford - review

By Marion Brennan | Theatre & Comedy | Published:

Keeping up with the military conquests of the ruthless and bloodthirsty Tamburlaine is something of a challenge.

Jude Owusu as Tamburlaine in Tamburlaine. Pictures by: Ellie Kurttz

Was that Persia or Turkey that the Scythian marauder just invaded? Or Arabia, Egypt, Damascus, Africa or Babylon? He lays claim to them all at some point.

The geography matters not. What appals is the colonising ambition of the aggressor and the relentless nature of his brutality.

The play was a big hit for Christopher Marlowe who was just 23 when it debuted on the Elizabethan stage just as England had defeated the Spanish Armada and was spreading its imperial tentacles ever wider. It resonates as sharply today.

Marlowe's anti-hero is not your average privileged warlord but someone who rose to power from a lowly shepherd. The political upstart was out to wipe the smiles off the faces of the complacent ruling elite, caring nothing for convention or traditional alliances.

In an age of rampant populism and big political egos, when leaders like Trump and Putin have torn up the rule book, Marlowe's 400-year-old epic appears minty fresh.

Given the breadth of the play perhaps, many of the actors take on multiple roles, sometimes switching characters without even leaving the stage. Rosy McEwen as Tamburlaine’s wife Zenocrate morphs on her deathbed into Callapine, the son of Tamburlaine’s Turkish rival, Bajazeth.

It is credit to Michael Boyd's fine directing that none of this is a problem.

Buckets of blood are shed, literally, as deaths are marked by fellow actors applying red goo with a paint brush from a tin bucket, or simply emptying the stuff over their heads, suggesting Tamburlaine's lack of emotional engagement in the atrocities.

Jude Owusu, magnificent in the title role, gives us a charismatic brute who can yet grieve for his wife and his own mortality. Mark Hadfield as the buffoonish King of Persia is a joy.

Runs until February 2019.

Marion Brennan

By Marion Brennan

News and features reporter, specialising in human interest and local history stories.


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