Peter Ormerod reviews Tamburlaine, presented by the RSC at the Swan Theatre, Stratford
The seductive power of savagery is laid bare in Michael Boyd's flawless production of Christopher Marlowe's two-part epic. Charisma, conviction and strength combine to make Tamburlaine a disgracefully compelling figure; for anyone who wonders why so many men of brutality command devotion, this show provides a chilling answer.
It is a dangerous and disturbing affair. Tamburlaine begins as a bandit; his smile, swagger and murderous ruthlessness win him allies and power; and a hunger for power is never satisfied. He is a beguiling, even charming man who reigns by terror. The only force that can resist him is his own biology.
Boyd, the RSC's previous artistic director, brings to the play a clarity and simplicity as sharp as Tamburlaine's sword. There is little in the way of gimmickry, and there is no sense of a particular political agenda having been thrust upon the work. The result is a production that exudes a dark radiance: the lighting is stark and subtle, the staging minimal but glorious.
Some of the touches are little short of inspired. Tragedies can induce death fatigue: what seems shocking in the first scene grows routine by the last, to the detriment of dramatic effect. Boyd overcomes this with a simple idea: in the play's early stages, we see few actual killings, with death demonstrated by blood being painted on faces. As the play progresses, the brush is replaced with a pail, from which blood is poured over the victim; by the end, such stylistic devices have given way to graphic depictions of slaughter almost unbearable to witness. This gradual increase in intensity is handled with immense skill.
Another conceit that lends this rather linear story an extraordinary dimension. There are more deaths than there are members of the cast; there is therefore a problem, as people we had seen die must come alive again. Boyd's solution is once again brilliant: actors carry their injuries throughout the play, regardless of the characters they are playing. So a performer whose character dies when his neck is broken in the early scenes wears a neck brace for the rest of the performance, even when playing one of Tamburlaine's sons; another bears on his neck a vivid scar, inflicted by the fatal slash of a knife. Occasionally, actors appear astonished to be inhabiting new bodies; this is sometimes comical, sometimes profoundly mysterious, as in one scene in which a character changes after a boy whispers into her ear something unheard. The sense is that the consequences of brutality outlive individual deaths.
It is all played out on a set evoking light industry: for much of the play, a curtain of thick plastic ribbons is cast along the back of the stage, while ladders abound and a gantry falls and rises. It all somehow reflects the mechanical quality of Tamburlaine's methods. Impressive too is the sonic component: the score leans heavily on percussion, played with power and precision and accentuating the punch of Marlowe's verse.
It may all sound rather bleak but there are some superb comic flourishes: bumbling, babyish kings, unctuous lackeys and the like. There is also romance, although twisted, and heartbreak: the death of Zenocrate, Tamburlaine's lover, is deeply touching, and his ensuing rage terrifying as he hurls her body about as if it were a life-size doll.
Every performance here is excellent; the cast's emotional engagement with the text is tangible, and the speech work is exemplary, with lines delivered with great pace and energy at no detriment to clarity; all possible meaning is extracted from each line. Jude Owusu as Tamburlaine will quite rightly gain the bulk of the plaudits, for the play's watchability depends in large part on his likeability, but the talent in this cast runs deep.
The play ends in a scene of grotesquery, squalor and degradation. These are the real spoils of war; these the true cost of following the wrong leaders. The warnings of Tamburlaine echo through the centuries. And this may well be a production for the ages.
* Tamburlaine runs until December 1. Visit rsc.org.uk/tamburlaine to book.