(Royal Shakespeare Company at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, 25 August 2018)
Something is brewing in the Scythian steppes. As the power of once-mighty Persia begins to wane under the rule of foolish Mycetes, rumours reach the court of a new leader rising in the north: a former shepherd, who has gathered a band of thugs and thieves and believes he is destined to rule the world. His name is Tamburlaine. Christopher Marlowe’s play is rarely performed, which is a pity because it has powerful resonance in the modern world. The RSC’s production, directed by Michael Boyd and designed by Tom Piper, was first staged in New York in 2014 and boils down Parts 1 and 2 into a single three-and-a-half-hour behemoth of death and ambition. (Imagine seven seasons of Game of Thrones condensed into 180 minutes and you have some idea of the amount of blood involved.) These cuts emphasise Tamburlaine’s dizzying rise to power, and the whole play is anchored by a magnificently charismatic performance by Jude Owusu.
When the play opens, Tamburlaine is little more than a successful bandit leader, striking at merchants and travellers on the roads of Persia. But the first tipping point comes when Mycetes, the weak-willed Persian king (Mark Hadfield, on riotous form) decides to prove his strength to his doubting nobles, and his dangerously ambitious brother Cosroe (David Sturzaker), by sending a thousand horseman to defeat this Scythian upstart. The Persian commander Theridamas (Edmund Wiseman) sets off but, instead of finding a grubby shepherd, he is greeted by a charming, silver-tongued man surrounded by gold and ‘courtiers’. For Tamburlaine (Jude Owusu) knows that the Persians look down on him, and has the wit to use his recent spoils to make the most of first impressions. Plus, he can receive Theridamas with a beautiful woman at his side, for he has just taken prisoner the lovely Zenocrate (Rosy McEwen), daughter of the Sultan of Egypt. Now, showing Theridamas that he is a force to be reckoned with, Tamburlaine uses words, not force, to convince the Persian to come over to his side. Comparing this ambitious, efficient man with the bumbling Mycetes, Theridamas decides to throw in his lot with Tamburlaine.
A second turning point comes when Cosroe – newly crowned by his co-conspirators as a rival king to Mycetes – engages Tamburlaine to help fight against his brother. When they succeed, it’s Tamburlaine who places the imperial crown of Persia on the new king’s head. But Cosroe has made a terrible mistake. He’s treated Tamburlaine as a servant, a tool, a simple soldier who can be used and discarded once Cosroe’s aims have been achieved, and who will be satisfied with loot and prisoners. But Tamburlaine has higher ambitions: a divine destiny. And, listening to Cosroe’s plans to make his triumphal entry into Persepolis, Tamburlaine’s appetite is whetted for greater things. ‘Is it not brave to be a king?‘ he muses to his friend Techelles (David Rubin), and so the die is cast. Before long, Cosroe finds that the very hands which crowned him snatch back his crown; and soon, Tamburlaine is King of Persia and begins looking outward to plan his domination of the wider world.
Other monarchs make the same mistake as Cosroe. They don’t take Tamburlaine seriously, seeing only a clumsy shepherd, when they should see a ruthless man driven by convictions of a divinely-inspired mission. For all that, Tamburlaine’s god is not the Christian God, or even Allah, but a god who helps those who helps themselves. His ambition is boundless and his talents look fit to match it. As he boasts towards the start of the play:
I hold the Fates bound fast in iron chains
And with my hand turn Fortune’s wheel about,
And sooner shall the sun fall from his sphere
Than Tamburlaine be slain or overcome.
The ruler who most famously underestimates Tamburlaine is Bajazeth, Emperor of Turkey (Sagar I.M. Arya, dignified and tragic), who believes that his temporal might protects him from the fate of his Persian neighbour. But nothing can stand against Tamburlaine, who rewards the Emperor for his lack of faith by putting him in a cage and using him as a footstool, hauling him around with the nomadic camp as a constant humiliating reminder of Bajazeth’s fall from grace. This is one of the great set-pieces of Tamburlaine’s rule – a shocking inversion of the established order, perhaps matched only by the legend that Tamburlaine used bridled kings to draw his chariot – another scene performed here. Bajazeth’s days are done, but his young son Callapine (played as a child by Haresh Raguram and as a man by Rosy McEwen) may one day come to avenge his father’s honour.
Tamburlaine was a tricky play when Marlowe wrote it – its apparently irreligious, violent, amoral, social-climbing antihero scandalised the elite while capturing the imaginations of the lower classes. It was one of the first plays to inspire a sequel (as I said earlier, both parts are included here), in which Tamburlaine continues to raze his way across the Middle East, accompanied by his three sons. And of course it has very contemporary echoes, as we see a band of uncompromising men taking the cities of Persepolis, Damascus and Babylon, and (often) putting entire populations to the sword. One of the most shocking scenes to a modern eye in this production is the moment when the four Virgins of Damascus are sent out on behalf of the city fathers, clad in hijab and jilbab, to (unsuccessfully) beg Tamburlaine for mercy. Yet Tamburlaine explains himself: he gave the Damascans a chance, inviting them to surrender while his tent was still white, the colour of mercy. When he raised a scarlet tent instead, the colour of blood, it was too late; and when he marches under black banners, their fate is sealed.
Such a production, which entirely lacks the catharsis of seeing the ‘baddie’ get his comeuppance, rests on the shoulders of the central character. If we don’t feel something for Tamburlaine, all is lost. We have to be on his side, despite the blood and the murder and the laying waste; we have to admire him, even if grudgingly, as he cuts a swathe up towards the summit of worldly power. And the main strength of this production is Jude Owusu in that title role: charismatic, thoughtful, ruthless but only driven to inarticulate bloodlust by the tragic death of his beloved wife. He is not an irredeemable villain: we’re shown that Zenocrate, who begins by loathing him, comes to adore him; and he, in return, eventually agrees to spare the life of her father when he sacks Damascus. He is a smart, shrewd, politically gifted man, not only a brutish killer, and Owusu captures that multi-faceted personality, even as Tamburlaine’s hubris grows to dangerous levels.
Owusu is supported by a brilliant cast, who take on a whole variety of roles, often quite openly transitioning from one character to another. Rosy McEwen transitions from being Zenocrates to Callapine in a moving piece of dumbshow, while James Tucker plays a variety of adviser roles with twinkling gusto (Meander, Basso, Baldwin, Perdicas), giving the impression that he’s always the same man, managing to cling on by using different names and thus one of history’s great survivors. My favourite was probably Mark Hadfield, who brought a warmth and humour to every one of his multiple roles. It meant that a relatively small cast managed to pull off a play that could quite easily support a cast of hundreds – indeed, I’m amazed that Tamburlaine hasn’t yet been made into a sweeping historical epic, with a cast of thousands, but perhaps its message (the lack of ‘just deserts’ for its triumphantly iconoclastic antihero) is too radical for Hollywood even today. But Boyd and Piper have made it a pacy, modern, breathless romp through a world of teetering Middle-Eastern kingdoms and ambitious strongmen, pulling out the humour of Marlowe’s language in a way that stops it being too heavy.
One thing struck me: I haven’t studied Marlowe at all. I bought the playtext shortly before the curtain went up, but I’d only managed to read a couple of scenes, and I found that Marlowe is much easier to understand ‘cold’ than Shakespeare. Shakespeare’s poetry may be more beautiful and richer, but Marlowe (at least in this cut version) comes across as a writer of spare, dramatic urgency and sharp humour – a writer, in short, whose work speaks directly to modern sentiments. It’s odd that we don’t see more of his stuff staged in London, when you consider how much Shakespeare we have. Not that I’m complaining – as you know, I love Shakespeare – but I do wonder why we don’t have the odd Edward II alongside all the Richard IIIs, or the occasional Jew of Malta in place of a Merchant of Venice. The RSC have done Marlowe a great service with this production, leaving the audience invigorated and buzzing at the end – although I will say that this isn’t a play for the squeamish, as the cast get through gallons of fake blood.
Thoroughly recommended if you can make it down to Stratford, and well worth a day out. As far as I know, there aren’t any plans to bring Tamburlaine to London, which is a shame, but if we’re lucky we might get a DVD, as the RSC are very good about producing filmed versions of their productions.