Review: Tamburlaine (Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon)

Jude Owusu is chillingly charismatic as the tyrannous warlord in Michael Boyd’s stylish take on the gory Elizabethan 1587 epic

Jude Owusu in Tamburlaine
© RSC, photo by Ellie Kurtz

Michael Boyd returns to the RSC with a revised version of his stylish 2014 New York adaptation of Christopher Marlowe's two-part drama, reflecting the rise of 21st century autocrats.

It is a bloody account of the violent conquests mounted by Tamburlaine, a Scythian-shepherd-turned-warrior soldier who seizes power in Persia and across the East, styling himself "a terror to the world".

Marlowe based his story on the life of 14th Century emperor, Amir Timur Gurgan, whose multi-ethnic armies were estimated to have killed around 5 per cent of the world population at the time. It was a huge hit for the 23 year-old playwright and the first English play to spawn a sequel.

The former RSC artistic director has condensed ten acts, written in two parts, into a single three-hour epic, with a 20-minute interval, and 23 actors playing 60 roles. When a character dies, the actor takes up another role – initially it is a little confusing but quickly makes sense, and the cast have fun in letting us know they're inhabiting a new role, some with previous injuries intact.

As the play opens to the sound of a heart-thumping beating drum a serious Royal household, dressed in black, walk on stage from behind a plastic curtain, the kind you find in an abattoir. Then enters the King of Persia, Mycetes, in all-white, comically dawdling behind his entourage eating a chicken drumstick, wiping his greasy fingers on one of his minions' scarves.
Mark Hadfield's far from king-like Mycetes and James Tucker, his trusted side-kick Meander, bring some light-hearted fun to the dark proceedings. When Mycetes breaks into toddler-like tantrum stamping his feet as he castigates the rise of Tamburlaine, Meander hilariously pulls the king to his chest and comforts him as a parent would a small child.

In contrast Jude Owusu's chillingly charismatic Tamburlaine and his ferocious testosterone-fuelled, sword-wielding bandits charge the stage with real menace. There are lots of group "huh!"s. As their power base grows their fur gilets and gold-plated armour are replaced by long military-style black leather coats, gold chains and boots. In part two guns replace swords.

A play about manly virtues, a thirst for power and the sheer inhumanity of war, Tamburlaine is essentially the story of a working-class man (a shepherd) who rises to power, conquers nation after nation, falls in love, has three sons, is widowed and dies, surprisingly, of natural causes.

It is a play with few strong roles for women. Zenocrate, the kidnapped daughter of an Egyptian Sultan – a dignified and statuesque Rosy McEwen – readily succumbs to become his concubine and queen, bringing out a softer, poetic side. He literally rages against her death.

What it lacks in psychological examination, Tamburlaine makes up for in blood and gore.

Marlowe's protagonist has little sympathy for man, woman or child if they do not surrender to his army. In the most brutal scenes imprisoned Bajazeth, Emperor of the Turks and his wife Zabina – the commanding Sagar I M Arya and Debbie Korley – bash out their brains; Tamburlaine stabs one of his own sons for refusing to go to battle and orders the murder of four virgins in Damascus.

I really did wince when Orcanes, the King of Natolia – Ralph Davis – has his tongue cut out and a lump of flesh is thrown to the floor. The sight of a mother forced to kill her young son rather than face Tamburlaine's army is particularly affecting – a heart-breaking performance by Zainab Hasan and Aaryan Dassaur.

The stylised violence is subtle yet effectively done with performers daubing victims from a bucket of blood as they die. The virgins stand behind the plastic curtain where blood is literally thrown at them and drips down like weeping tears.

Tom Piper's pared-down industrial staging is full of invention – including a platform for kings lowered from the ceiling and charred pages from the burning of holy Turkish books floating in the air.

The numerous wars can, at times, feel slightly repetitive, as different leaders unite to take on Tamburlaine – but the action speeds along at a pace and the excellent casting makes for compelling viewing. It casts light on the new breed of modern political strongmen and demagogues taking hold from Trump and Putin to Kim Jong-un and Turkey's Erdogan.