The Swan Theatre, Thursday 30th August, 2018
Christopher Marlowe’s epic drama was an innovation in its time, and a major breakthrough in the use of blank verse in the theatre. Michael Boyd’s production, which adapts the two-parter into one three-hour-or-so piece, clearly shows how Marlowe’s work is a kind of prototype for Shakespeare’s early history plays, which were to appear soon after. Where Will outdoes Kit is in terms of plot development and structure, as well as depth of character – but that’s an essay for another forum.
As the eponymous despot, Jude Owusu gives a commanding performance, breathing life into the lyrical passages Marlowe puts in his tyrant’s mouth, mastering the verse and making it a pleasure to hear. Owusu adopts high status from the off, even with Tamburlaine’s lowly beginnings as shepherd-turned-brigand. The play charts the upward course of his career and the inexorable spread of his domination of the Middle East and beyond. Owusu has the pent-up power of a big cat and his smiling eyes add menace to his pronouncements. It’s compelling stuff albeit a bit one-note; there is, however, a powerful scene in which he expresses his grief for his dead queen – perhaps the only moment where we feel empathy for this monstrous man.
As said queen, Zenocrate, blonde Rosy McEwen is clad all in white to contrast with the black clobber of Owusu – opposites attract, I suppose! McEwen brings regal vulnerability to the piece, although I can’t pinpoint when she transitioned from royal hostage to loving wife.
The company is a strong one – mainly men putting themselves about. Mark Hadfield leavens the machismo by bringing touches of humour to his portrayal of Persian king Mycetes and other roles later on. David Sturzaker plays it straight as his brother Cosroe, while good use is made of James Tucker as Meander, a lord who is more of a civil servant. Sagar I M Arya is highly dignified as captured Emperor of the Turks, Bajazeth, while Zabina, his other half, goes from haughty pride to vengeful desperation in a striking performance from Debbie Korley. I also enjoy Tamburlaine’s henchmen, Usumcasane (Riad Richie) and Techelles (David Rubin).
For the most part, the bloodletting is stylised, with characters on their way out, daubed with red courtesy of a paintbrush dipped in a bucket – although emptying the bucket over someone in a cage brings flashbacks to Saturday morning television of my salad days (yes, this is a TISWAS reference) There are more graphic moments, such as the excision of someone’s tongue as Tamburlaine silences criticism (rather than merely mewling ‘Fake news!’) but the mass slaughters are kept off-stage, evoked in our imaginations by Marlowe’s descriptions.
Hugely watchable and effective though this production is, I come away a little unsatisfied. This tyrant is not a tragic figure brought down by a fatal flaw in his nature. We get no sense of a good man gone bad or the glimmer of redemption turned awry. I suppose this history of empire-building appealed more to the play’s original audience, who would have revelled in the catalogue of kingdoms chained to Tamburlaine’s yoke and his growing collection of captured crowns. How different, how very different, from present-day news footage of our weak prime minister, trying to dance her way around Africa in the hope of securing trade deals, while Britain’s status on the world stage plummets for no other reason than folly.