Sunday, August 19, 2018

Tamburlaine at the RSC

It's been a busy week one way or another, including a Stratford trip to see the opening preview performance of Tamburlaine at The Swan. Preview performances are a bit of a mixed bag, especially the first one - the atmosphere is generally really good, with a theatre full of people willing to be pleased, and appreciative of the lower prices. The down side is that there are sometimes wrinkles to be ironed out, and hesitations over dialogue - although I think the atmosphere more than balances any occasional hiccup.

We were both totally unfamiliar with Tamburlaine, and made a conscious decision not to read up on it before we got the programme on Thursday night, so beyond knowing that I generally love Christopher Marlowe, but that this isn't one of his best plays, it was all unknown territory.

It isn't his best work, if I understand correctly part 2 (the second half) was originally a sequel. The 2 parts together take a good 3 hours to get through, and I wonder if they wouldn't be better as separate plays which would give everybody, but mostly the audience, more energy for the second half. There are also a lot of characters, with a significant part of the cast taking on 2 or 3 roles each which isn't as confusing as it might sound, but does mean you really need to concentrate.

For Marlowes purposes Tamburlaine started as a shepherd, although the historical character he's based on was a warlord who seized power in the vacuum created by the death of Genghis Khan. Whichever way you look at it the empire he built was impressive.

Jude Owusu has more than enough charisma and presence on stage to make the character convincing,     both as the ruthless warlord capable of the greatest brutality to achieve his ambitions, but also as a man who might inspire loyalty by more than fear. He's softened by his love for Zenocrate (played by Rosy McEwen who was excellent, I very much hope to see her in more things in the future because I thought she was brilliant) and by his friendship with his followers.

It's a beautiful looking production too, with some gorgeous costumes, and a host of golden crowns that gleam against muted backgrounds in a particularly pleasing way. After the extremely bloody 'Duchess of Malfi' it was also noticible that less can be more. This is still a bloody play, there's still a lot of blood on the stage, but it's relative economy of use has much more emotional impact (watching the cast literally wallow around on a stage covered in gore was more distracting than anything else in the Duchess).

The reason I love Marlowe so much is that I always recognise his characters in a way that I don't with   Shakespeare. In this case Tamburlaines ambition, confidence, and focus on his ends all make sense. His relationship with Zenocrate feels of a piece with that, as does his extravagant grief at her death, and his awful reaction to it (in contrast to a sub plot between his follower, Theridamas, and Olympia, a widow he briefly has a passion for). Zenocrate, at least the way she's played here, also feels like a real woman with a complex set of emotions. Every thing me I see a Marlowe play I wonder exactly how much we lost by his early death. Imagine if he'd written as much as Shakespeare.

Basically, this is well worth seeing. There are some fantastic performances, it's an interesting play, and I came out of it with a lot to think about - and also buzzing with enthusiasm which in the end is what I really want from live theatre.


  1. I have wondered about the wisdom of trying to do the two parts as a single play. Last time the RSC staged it they did it over two nights. I’m sure it worked better that way.

    1. First time I've seen it, so hard to judge but I would have liked more time to absorb each half, and for the pace to generally have been a bit slower. Even so it's one of the better things I've seen this year, and Jude Owusu is excellent in the title role. His Tamburlaine has a ruthless logic too him so that even his most terrible actions make sense. I reckon Rosy McEwen will be one to watch too.