Christopher Marlowe’s plays, Tamburlaine Part One and Two, depict the military conquests and spectacular rise to power of a tyrant. Sadly, this is a subject we are all familiar with in the 21st century. 400 years after Marlowe penned the plays, director Michael Boyd has condensed the two texts, turning them into a single, epic, three hour blood-fest. Boyd’s revised version of Tamburlaine is currently running alongside Timon of Athens, Troilus and Cressida, and Tartuffe in the RSC’s current season of ‘plays that begin with T’. It is loosely based around the life of a brutal 14th century warlord, Amir Timur Gurgan, who conquered Africa and most of Asia. One thing is certain from the start… Tamburlaine is not for the faint hearted! Expect blood (literally) by the bucket load.
A bleak, grey and barren stage, with its own metal drainage system, hints at the violence to come. The only set dressing in this cold, hostile world is the clear plastic that is draped at the rear of the stage. Hardly comforting. A raised metal gangway and an ominous metal trapdoor give the impression that this is a prison-like environment. It is effective stage design which perfectly matches the personality of this ruthless tyrant, and allows the audience to focus their attention on the play’s action.
We are introduced to our protagonist as he begins his rise from humble origins to a powerful warlord. Within seven minutes, we have our first casualty, as Tamburlaine effortlessly breaks a soldier’s neck. Showing that he will stop at nothing to gain total dominance, Tamburlaine betrays and murders his way to become King of Persia at an alarming speed. The frenetic pace of Tamburlaine’s rise to power makes it difficult to keep up with characters and events, as the body count rapidly rises.
Rather than obscene levels of violence, Tamburlaine uses striking imagery to indicate that a character has died. As they perish, they are painted with blood, artistically symbolising the violence that led to their demise. If they suffer a more gruesome death, a bucket of blood is thrown over the character. What makes this imagery even more haunting is that it is a child who repeatedly performs the ritual. These characters then rise from the dead, as the actors assume different roles, meanwhile carrying the visual scars of their previous demise. Although this is supposed to eerily symbolise the ghosts, and violence, of the past, it made me even more confused as to who these new characters were supposed to be. This was most evident when Rosy McEwan’s character rose from the dead to play a young man, Callapine. Without changing her outward appearance, it was a confusing five minutes before it became obvious that she had changed character.
As Tamburlaine continues his quest for global dominance, he falls in love with the beautiful Zenocrate, who later becomes his wife. It is a testament to Jude Owusu’s astonishing versatility as an actor that he flawlessly transitions between these two polarised aspects of Tamburlaine’s character. I have admired Owusu since being captivated by him playing Lopakhin in the The Cherry Orchard earlier this year at Manchester’s Royal Exchange. In Tamburlaine, Owusu is equally commanding, addressing all levels of the theatre’s audience, with an incredible stage presence.
He is beautifully eloquent during Tamburlaine’s speeches, skilfully mastering blank verse, yet brilliantly tyrannous and unforgiving during the play’s more violent scenes. Owusu also disturbingly portrays the narcissism of Tamburlaine, as he captures the Turkish Emperor Bajazeth, cruelly imprisoning him in an iron cage, and enslaving the Emperor’s wife. Only releasing Bajazeth when he requires him as a footstool, Owusu’s Tamburlaine thrives watching the suffering of others. The only reason I wanted to watch Tamburlaine was because Jude Owusu plays the title role. He didn’t disappoint! It is truly remarkable performance.
Every member of the support cast also deliver superb performances, many playing several characters. Sagar I M Arya, the tortured Turkish Emperor, and Debbie Korley, his enslaved wife are notably excellent. Their scenes of torment and suffering are harrowing to watch. It is almost a relief when they eventually meet untimely ends, getting a bucket of blood thrown over them.
As Tamburlaine’s power grows, and the play’s body count continues to rise, it is Zainab Hasan who impresses as Olympia, a mother trapped in a horrific situation, who would rather kill her son and husband than see them enslaved or murdered by Tamburlaine. It is heart-wrenching to see these events unfold and tragic when she is imprisoned before she can end her own life. As she begs to be put out of her misery, Hasan seizes the audience’s sympathy, and once again, that bucket of blood is a relief.
There are other elements to be admired in Tamburlaine, such as the elegant, beautifully decadent costumes. Black costumes are ornately embellished with stunning gold embroidery, lending the play a rich grandeur that completely contrasts with the barren stage. James Jones‘ musical direction also deserves credit, as the constant score of percussive kettle drums and gongs highlight the war-like state that grips the play. There is a nice attention to detail that I noticed with regards to the play’s weapons, as the Muslim nations have scimitars, and the Christian kings wielding traditional westernised swords.
My main criticism is of Marlowe’s play itself. Even edited, Tamburlaine feels too long. As I mentioned earlier, its relentless pace and large cast of characters make it confusing to know what is happening or who it is happening to. It is difficult to keep up with the play. This is compounded by the fact that many characters’ narratives are unresolved, such as Zenocrate’s father. The second half of the play feels like a repeat of the first, as Tamburlaine simply conquers more lands, massacres more people and tortures more kings, namely getting them to pull his chariot.
It is an onslaught of grim suffering and torment which gets tiring after three hours. Tamburlaine slaughters all the citizens of Damascus, drowns the entire population of Babylon and claims that he is more powerful than a God. You sit in anticipation, hoping that somebody will kill him, or that Bajazeth’s son, Callapine, will get his revenge for his father’s humiliating enslavement and death. You hope that perhaps one of his power hungry sons will kill him in order to gain control. I was expecting this to continue the trajectory of a revenge play, considering that he killed so many people and had many enemies. However, the ending of Marlowe’s play feels like an anti-climax. There is no satisfying conclusion.
Tamburlaine makes Game of Thrones look like Emmerdale. It has the highest death count of any play that I have ever seen. The play was well staged and acted. Jude Owusu is superb as Tamburlaine. However, Marlowe’s play itself left me confused, struggling to keep up with its relentless bloodshed and disappointed with its undramatic ending.