REVIEW: ‘Tamburlaine’, Swan Theatre, RSC

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Tamburlaine‘, Swan Theatre, RSC

“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”.

  Michael Boyd returns to the RSC to direct Christopher Marlowe‘s bloodsoaked epic, ‘Tamburlaine’. Loosely based on the real life exploits of Asian emperor and conqueror Timur (also known as Amir Timur, or Tamerlane), this two-part play has been condensed down into a three hour production, which offers a chilling look at power – those that have it, those that have too much of it and, most significantly, those who abuse it. 

  The play follows the bloodthirsty Tamburlaine, a shepherd who rises to power at an alarming speed, conquering kingdoms and building an empire, silencing all who rise against him.

  Jude Owusu is magnificent as eponymous character Tamburlaine, cutting a striking figure with his impressive, dominant performance . A character that sees the world as very much his for the taking, Owusu’s Tamburlaine offers a rich insight into the mind of a violent and powerful man – the epitome of tyranny – who sets out to conquer the world.

Jude Owusu (Tamburlaine) in Tamburlaine. Photo credit: Ellie Kurttz 

  A very bloody play, with many character deaths, this production lends a poetic, an artistic, quality to these deaths, doing so skilfully, but without diminishing the play’s message, or lessening its impact. Here, blood is literally painted onto the characters as they meet their end. When killing Ralph Davis’ Agydas, Riad L Richie’s Usumcasane takes up a bucket of blood and, using a paintbrush, paints a line of blood across the torso of Agydas, before generally splattering blood on his body. However, on finishing, David Rubin’s Techelles takes the paintbrush, and paints with decidedly more definitive strokes up and down the torso of Agydas. Does this suggest that he is inflicting greater injury to ensure death? This method is used throughout the production, for all of the character deaths. For some, however, a bucket of blood is thrown over them, suggestive of a more graphic, a more violent, death. What’s more, and predominantly more unnerving, is the fact that it is often a child carrying the bucket, painting.

  These characters become human canvases onto which death is painted, the production itself painting a portrait of  “revenge, war, death, and cruelty”.

Jude Owusu (Tamburlaine) in Tamburlaine. Photo credit: Ellie Kurttz 

  A play with a great many characters, several members of the cast here play more than one. After the death of a character, after they have been painted blood red, a cast member would rise, instantly assuming another role. Almost a reincarnation, these cast members are reborn, as though the spirit of their previous characters rose once more, inhabiting another, in an attempt to put an end to the tyranny of Tamburlaine. To the eagle-eyed, it appears as though some of these ‘reborn’ characters bore the scars of their older characters. Ralph Davis’ Arabia had a gash on his neck, evidence of his previous characters’ death, in keeping with the way Agydas killed himself. This seemed to serve as a vivid reminder – a reminder of those killed by the hand of Tamburlaine. What is notable is that a similar spirit seems to present on many of the play’s characters – a spirit, a fire, within them, that hopes to see an end of tyranny, as all hope to rise against Tamburlaine.

  In the second half of the production, Tamburlaine is wheeled on stage, sitting on his throne, atop a large cage, full of crowns – crowns, no doubt, of those kings, queens and emperors he has had killed, or has killed himself. The cage, a symbol of bondage and imprisonment, bears the weight of his throne, as Tamburlaine himself rules through fear. The fact his throne, himself, and therefore his crown, is above all these others, suggests his belief in his own superiority – not only is he physically higher than all others, he believes himself to be higher, superior, in every sense. Although initially considering himself to be the ‘scourge of God’, it is soon clear that he himself hopes to be seen, strives to be seen, as godlike, wholly convinced that “to be a king is half to be a god”. The sets, the costumes, the bright lighting, all serve to highlight the pomp, the pageantry, the grandiosity, of emperors, of kings, and of would-be gods.

Sagar I M Arya (Bajazeth) in Tamburlaine. Photo credit: Ellie Kurttz 

  At one point in the production, Zenocrate, wife to Tamburlaine, states that Tamburlaine “fights for sceptres and for slippery crowns”. Her use of the adjective ‘slippery’ in reference to these crowns suggests that such things are hard to take hold of, and even harder to hold onto.  They don’t stay in place for long, and are no sooner on the head of one, before they are slipped onto the head of another. They are unpredictable, and unreliable. In a cage here, is this Tamburlaine’s way of securing them? Of ensuring they stay in place? Of keeping them safe, from others who may try to take them back? It’s possible that the term ‘slippery’ takes on a double meaning here, perhaps one that is slightly more relevant today. For instance, is the very idea, the very notion, of a crown, and what it stands for, slippery? It’s possible that a crown does not have the same meaning, possibly even the same significance, today, as it has done in previous centuries – previous decades even. Perhaps the very meaning of a ‘crown’ is ‘slippery’ – meaning different things, to different people, at different times in history.

  What becomes very clear throughout the production is the idea of the once mighty, being brought low by those tyrants in positions of power, as crowns slip from the heads of those who once bore them. For those he does not kill, Tamburlaine employs a ritual humiliation, and with none more so than Sagar I M Arya’s Bajazeth, and his wife, Debbie Korley’s Zabina. Tamburlaine keeps Bajazeth, once a mighty emperor, in a cage, referring to him as his personal “footstool”, only allowing him out of his cage for this purpose. The hands of his wife were bound together, attached by a rope to the cage, and she was used as a slave, as is their young son. Eventually, Bajazeth kills himself as his wife goes to fetch him some water, and her reaction, upon finding him dead, is truly harrowing, – before she too kills herself. Each character has a bucket of blood thrown over them, although it is suggested that they both bash their brains out against the iron bars of the cage – against the bars of tyranny, of oppression, of slavery and of persecution, that have entrapped them for so long.

Debbie Korley (Zabina) in Tamburlaine. Photo credit: Ellie Kurttz 

  Whilst Bajazeth is the only character that is physically kept in the cage, it would appear that this serves as a visual aid in conjunction with the idea that, under the tyranny of Tamburlaine, all our characters are, in a figurative sense, trapped.

  Before the lights go down to mark the end of the first half of the production, Bajazeth and Zabina slowly rise – Bajazeth unlock the bar of his cage, and steps out, whilst Zabina unties the ropes that bind her hands together, and lets in drop to the floor. In death, both are now free – free for tyranny, and free from the fear the comes with it.

  Later, Tamburlaine will use two characters as horses to pull his unusual chariot (the throne on top of the cage of crowns), bridled, and therefore silenced – whilst he cracks his terrible whip. When these characters become so weak, to the point of collapse, they are replaced by yet a further two. These people, the kings, queens and emperors, are humbled, humiliated, abused, brought low under the yoke, under the reigns, of tyranny.

The cast of Tamburlaine. Photo credit: Ellie Kurttz 

  The second half of the production seems to hover more closely to our own world, with the addition of such modern embellishments as leather jackets, suits, stethoscopes and rifles, as the production brings the action down to our own day, allowing us to more easily draw parallels between the life under the authoritarian reign of Tamburlaine, and the times we today find ourselves trapped in, caged in by fear, tyranny, corruption, and the abuse of power.

  After a father has been wounded in battle, dying in front of his wife and young son, the mother faces an incredibly tough decision, and takes it upon herself to kill her own son, rather than allowing him to be captured, and quite possibly tortured, and then attempts to kill herself, before she is prevented from doing so. A terrible paradox to be caught in, it becomes a kindness on the part of the mother, rather than a cruelty, killing her son to protect him from unspeakable violence and pain. When we look at the world around us, do others face this decision? Is living in such times, particularly in certain countries, worse than death – death at your own hand, under your own terms? A terrible thought – but clearly, it is a thought some appear to have, are forced to have.

  The second half of Marlowe’s play, which here forms the second half of the production, is set a few years after the first. However, although this time period has been exaggerated here, there are only a few subtle differences – nothing drastic – with many more similarities. The production keeps pace and continuity, but subtle and clever nuances emphasise just how little the world has advanced – if anything, as shown in the change in weaponry, from swords and knives, to rifles – it has got worse.

The cast of Tamburlaine. Photo credit: Ellie Kurttz 

  Towards the end of the play, Tamburlaine, sitting on his throne, takes a floodlight, and begins shining it around the auditorium, highlighting all the territories he has taken, that are, for the present, under his control. However, he laments those he has not yet taken, and tells his sons to continue expanding their empire. He crowns his son, Salman Akhtar‘s Amyras, who has the final speech in the play, reflects on the fact that nothing in heaven or on earth can ever equal his father. Is he intimidated by this task set for him by his father? Will we have more of the same? Trapped in the same vicious cycle of tyranny by a son setting out to emulate his father?

  Acutely relevant, this production highlights the danger of power residing in the hands of just one man, a man who is not reasonably able to wield it – a man whose very mission is to be “a terror to the world”. 

  Exploring the darkest depths of tyranny, power, corruption and death, ‘Tamburlaine’ holds a candle to our own divisive times, with its unnervingly explicit parallels to war, political conflict, and religious persecution, that remain horrifically common.

  Vivid, impactful, and occasionally disturbing, this is an epic production of an epic play.

The cast of Tamburlaine. Photo credit: Ellie Kurttz 

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