I mean to be a terror to the world.
Maria Aberg’s feminist take on Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi has given way to an remorselessly masculine Tamburlaine – Christopher Marlowe’s historical epic following a young shepherd’s journey to absolute despotism. The return of Michael Boyd to the RSC has heralded much death, much gore, and much glory.
Boyd has created a world of tarnished gold: the more opulent Tamburlaine’s kingdom becomes, the more corrupt, and so on and on until the sight of a crown becomes dirty, and the throne becomes indistinguishable from the gutter. Tom Piper’s design incorporates the gritty industrial – steel frames, PVC strip curtains, metal grates and chains – and the divine: fantastic gilded crowns, velvet cushions, immaculate gowns; resulting in a sobering visualisation of absolute power corrupting absolutely. The murders, too, seem to corrupt along with everything else, beginning as stylistic paintbrush daubs of blood but ending as brutal slaughters, whilst the killed seem to rise again with actors having to play more than one part (the play being as epic and immense as it is). Boyd combats this with style, however, leading to the dead rising again holding the injuries from their past lives – perhaps showing how Tamburlaine is having to escape his past crimes, or that a monarch (as an individual) is impermanent and unimportant. It’s a stylish way to jazz up Marlowe’s wordy history.
However, it’s hard to pin Marlowe’s work down as just wordy, when Jude Owusu has the words on his tongue. He speaks it easily and, particularly in the second act when he comes into his own, he is a powerful force on stage. The rust creeping into the edges of his magnificence, the odd tick, the frenzied tension: Owusu shows us a man plagued by ambition, cruelty, and his own mortality. But Rosy McEwen is a fierce match to Owusu, as the beautiful Zenocrate – whose death sends Tamburlaine half-mad but, in life, is half-sworn lover and half-unwilling Queen. McEwen is exceptionally strong: dignified and understandably beloved even in death.
The majority of the cast are spread thinly on the ground – having to play (and seeming to enjoy playing) multiple roles – and, where other actors may fall down, the RSC prove themselves casting masters once again, as the ensemble are fantastic. James Tucker plays the inter-generational ingratiator, obsequious to he who will spare his life at any given time, and constantly sly in his small glasses and long black coat which are eerily reminiscent of Nazism. A particular standout came in the form of David Sturzaker – whose delivery is smooth and immaculate – and whose turn as usurper Cosroe is stealthy and arrogant, fluid and alluring in its trickery. Bajazeth is given vocal power by Sagar I M Arya, who is all-God, booming gloriously through the theatre, the human form of molten gold.
This bloodbath is – yes, of course – bloody, but Boyd’s production is splattered as much with beauty as it is with blood. As Tamburlaine makes his defiant move against God itself, burning religious texts, the blackened pages fall silk-like from the air as the soft music whines beneath his words – it is a stunning moment, oddly exquisite. The cyclical rise and fall of dizzying sounds as Tamburlaine rides his crown-filled chariot, whipping his courtiers and friends into a silent-screaming whirlwind, is hypnotic. James Jones’ musical score is so close to intrusive that it’s dangerous (perhaps on purpose, with the music posing an almost constant threat to language, as if some divine power is fighting for power over humanity), but it works, remarkably, sometimes distracting but always somehow working. The clattering of cymbals or drums whips the action along.
Where a lesser production may choose to make Tamburlaine’s story savage, masculine, coarse, this production shows us Godliness at its most violent.
I did not know what to expect from Tamburlaine – the continuous stream of death and challenge? yes, but the beauty? not at all.