Tamburlaine poster

November 17, 2018, by Peter Kirwan

Tamburlaine (RSC) @ The Swan Theatre

Oh, how I’ve missed Michael Boyd. While there’s much I admire about Gregory Doran’s work, the RSC’s output has been at best variable for the last few years, often seeming to be in competition with the thrust stage and falling too often into dully conservative furrows. Boyd’s tenure as Artistic Director was far from perfect, but at its best both he and the RSC produced politically conscious, site-specific, truly ensemble work that made even the most obscure plays as clear as day – and of course I’m thinking of the celebrated Histories cycle of 2006-08. And here’s Boyd back, sidling quietly into the Swan with an outstanding stylistic sequel to the Histories, Tamburlaine.

Boyd’s adaptation of Tamburlaine played first at Theatre for a New Audience in New York before being remounted for Stratford, but in its indebtedness to the Histories, the RSC – and the Swan in particular – felt like its natural home. The two plays were sensitively stripped down to a single three-hour event, with an enormous ensemble cycling through doubled, tripled and quadrupled roles, and the whole auditorium of the Swan in play, celebrating the unique strengths of that unique theatre for intimacy, circularity and the use of the vertical axis.

The most obvious borrowing from the Histories was the emphasis on thematic doubling through the embodied presence of ‘ghosts’. As characters were killed, the actors paused before getting up and walking off, often with fear or resolve depending on how they had died. When they appeared in their new roles, they frequently continued to bear the scars of their previous lives. Salman Akhtar, for instance, had his neck snapped brutally by Tamburlaine when playing the servant Capolin; for the rest of the production, including when playing Tamburlaine’s second son, he wore a surgical neck brace. Ralph Davis had his throat cut early on as one of Tamburlaine’s enemies, and the cut on his neck remained visible. And David Sturzaker’s Cosroe retained the blood on his face when reappearing as the King of Fez, who screamed down as his old crown was offered away.

The lingering ghosts provided much of the thematic coherence in a production anchored by the stellar performance of Judo Owusu in the title role. Tamburlaine was a surprisingly nuanced role in Owusu’s performance: confident, yes; vaunting, yes; but with a relaxed assuredness that meant he didn’t have to overpower everyone. Indeed, for much of the production he seemed content to share the stage with his companions Techelles (the always-excellent David Rubin), Usumcasane (Riad Richie), the recruited Theridamas (Edmund Wiseman) and the powerful, near-silent Kasap (Naveed Khan). The genuine camaraderie between these, especially the old friends Techelles and Usumcasane, went further than I’d ever imagined to situating Tamburlaine as one of a group, the Mulligan, Lafayette and Laurens to his hungry Hamilton. While the production hinted at the occasional tensions – as when Techelles and Theridamas almost came to blows over a captured woman – the love between the men was apparent, and their performance of allegiance to him a joy to them, with Techelles even doing a handstand to deposit his upside-down crown right-way-up at Tamburlaine’s feet.

The strength of the supporting warriors was to keep Tamburlaine grounded; he never roared, but clearly and powerfully articulated what would happen next, made strong decisions, and never looked back. It was in his abuses of his prisoners that the rot began setting in, as he taunted Bajazeth in his cage, egged on by his men, and later appeared on a chariot made up of the cage filled with crowns, cracking his whip at the muzzled prisoners who pulled it. While he never had a rift with his immediate followers, Tamburlaine did become more distant from the ground, and lost in his single-minded tyranny. Yet he never lost the charisma that encouraged his men not only to follow but to love him.

Yet this increasingly unstable leader left an indelible footprint on the world. The graphic violence of the play was represented stylistically in buckets of blood thrown on people as they stabbed themselves, bashed their brains out, or had their throats cut (most effectively as Sagar I M Arya as Bajazeth threw himself bodily against the bars of his cage and the blood splashed in patterns across the stage). For much of the play the bucket of blood was held by a young boy playing Bajazeth’s son Callapine, adding a yet more harrowing edge to the violence as the child ‘killed’ his father and mother, and then wandered the stage looking for more ‘victims’.

Against the violence stood Zenocrate, played by Rosy McEwen in one of her first professional stage performances, and a fine find. Zenocrate’s quiet self-possession contrasted with Tamburlaine’s violence, and seemed to calm him. She was royally unfazed by the changes in events, and indeed he even seemed to learn something of dignity from her. Her early ambivalence to and criticisms of his actions gave way when faced with Bajazeth – in I M Arya’s performance, a terrifyingly articulate opponent – and Debbie Korley’s Zabina, whose scorn for both Tamburlaine and Zenocrate were just as fearsome. The splendour of their costumes, their eloquence and the uprightness of their posture created a world that Zenocrate recognised, and her powerful ripostes to the rival Queen were as much of a victory as Tamburlaine’s military conquest.

Upon Zenocrate’s death early in the second half, her body was subjected to indignities as Tamburlaine grabbed her and thrashed her about on the stage in anguish. He held her upright at the end of the scene and then, following a rare blackout, she was revealed in the same position, now alone. She jerked alive as Young Callapine entered the stage and handed over the bucket to her, she becoming Callapine for the remainder of the play, while the boy returned to other child roles. The embodied memory of Zenocrate in Callapine added a potentially significant emotional punch to the meetings of Tamburlaine and Callapine; Callapine was suspended on a gantry dead centre in the middle of the theatre, and all of Tamburlaine’s attention was focused on him at the expense of the other opposed kings. The coherence of the doubling was somewhat undone by the return of McEwen as Zenocrate’s own image, pushed around in a wheelchair, and her oscillation between the two roles rather undercut the symbolic power of her appearance in death.

The production also betrayed a small amount of anxiety over its own doubling practices in the comic acknowledgement of them in other roles, albeit these were done with great verve by two returning RSC alumn, Mark Hadfield and James Tucker. Hadfield went full buffoon as Mycetes, staging petulant tantrums when things didn’t go his way and jibing at the audience. Tucker’s Meander, meanwhile, was a kind of babysitter to Mycetes who did his king’s bidding but also effectively sent him to bed to shut him up. The two cycled through a number of roles and often shrugged at the audience when announcing their new character, creating a laugh even if it risked rendering the doubling itself a comic rather than dramaturgically coherent device. Hadfield’s roles thematically connected several weak men – including the Jailer who lets Callapine escape – while Tucker played a succession of messengers, cowards and doctors, and often remained onstage to observe the violence in horror.

The two Tamburlaine plays got roughly equal attention either side of the interval, though Part 1 was by far the more successful, with its standout setpieces (including Hadfield’s Mycetes giving his crown to an audience member to hide from Tamburlaine; the tormenting of Bajazbeth in his cage; the opposed queens). The rise and rise allowed Owusu’s Tamburlaine to come slowly into his own, yet with his chin raised, constantly aspiring to greater things. Part 2 was a little slower and more repetitive, the atrocities building up but the cast of characters rotating increasingly quickly. The most successful bits of Part 2 leaned more heavily into the stylistic conceit, including a nightmarish sequence where Tamburlaine’s increasingly long train of followers circled in a macabre dance of death, the bodies of his victims jerking violently in time to the crack of his whip. The sense of the ghosts closing in was offset by the increased interpersonal focus on Tamburlaine’s sons, including the ambitious Celebinus (Anton Cross) and the conscientious objector – latterly coward – Calyphas (Raj Bajaj), whose murder at Tamburlaine’s hand allowed him to return briefly as a haunting ghost. The Ghosts became most coherent as Tamburlaine approached death, with Bajazeth and Zabina glaring on in their full regalia while Zenocrate exchanged glances with the corpse of Calyphas, Tamburlaine’s most extreme atrocities finally catching up with him.

The burning of the Qu’ran was thrown away surprisingly quickly – literally, in fact, as Usumcasane dumped a pile of bound books into a trapdoor – but the sight of blackened pages falling from the ceiling provided a powerful image. Tom Piper’s design was, yet again, reminiscent of his work for the Histories, with a trapdoor serving as a void into which bodies and books fell, and a framework of metal providing the sounds and textures of war. The mixed period dress left the whole thing everywhen, a milieu of combative masculinity and proud tyrannising that could be applied to any moment, though such lack of specificity is perhaps not what is most urgent at a time when a portrayal of an increasingly unstable ruler who keeps lowering the bar for civil discourse even further might have very immediate ramifications. The plastic that separated the upstage area from the main thrust was increasingly covered in blood in a production that didn’t go as far as The Duchess of Malfi in its saturation in the red stuff, but which didn’t shy away from the sweeping red that slowly covered costumes and stage.

James Jones’s percussive score thundered throughout the production, the drums often overpowering the voices just as Tamburlaine himself overthrew the continent. The noise and scale of the production captured the epic triumphs of Tamburlaine and the extraordinary reach of his influence. Yet pleasingly, the production also allowed for moments of quiet. Wheeled on to sit beside her husband as he died, the corpse of Zenocrate suddenly came to life and kissed Tamburlaine gently to mark his own death. For all of the production’s brio and excess, the grace notes still resonated. It was a powerful case for Marlowe’s play, and a welcome reminder of what the RSC is capable of when its spaces are well-used.

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