REVIEW: Tamburlaine at the RSC

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Jude Owusu gives a career-defining performance as Tamburlaine.

Steve Sutherland reviews Tamburlaine, which is on at the RSC Swan Theatre until 1st December

One of the more amusing stories to resurface on the internet recently concerned Tito and Amanda Watts from Jacksonville, Florida, who were arrested in 2015 after selling $10,000’s worth of golden tickets to heaven. The couple, who claimed all you had to do was present the shiny coupons at the Pearly Gates to guarantee entry, were flogging them off at $99.99 per ticket which means that roughly 100 people actually bought them! Unbelievable that folks could really be that gullible, right? I mean, you couldn’t make it up, could you?… Except…

There’s a scene that remains in Michael Boyd’s newly truncated production of Christopher Marlowe’s Tamburlaine that challenges the Watts’ real-life tale for incredulity. A woman freshly widowed at the hands one of the warlord’s grim lieutenants, is intent on suicide. Having dispatched her own young son to deliver him from slavery and desperate to join him in a better place, she convinces her captor, who’s unconvincingly smitten and about to ravage her sexually, that she has a magic potion which will render him immune from all harm. She daubs her chest with said liquor then bids the doofus to try to pierce her flesh with his dagger. He does, she dies and he roars, bitter that he’s been so gulled. I mean, who would ever write such a preposterous scene and hope to get away with it?

And kind of therein lies my problem with Tamburlaine: for all its many qualities, it’s all a bit… meh…

Basically, it goes like this: a lowly shepherd is intent on conquering the civilised world, sod all the consequences, and he almost succeeds. And that’s, er, about it. Territories fall, kingdoms are toppled, various monarchs are enslaved or put to the sword. Over and over and over again. Ad infinitum. It’s a repetitive sequence of events which has the counterproductive effect of actually numbing you to the slaughter — a consequence unfortunately enhanced by having the actors who’ve been slashed and gutted, revived to play different parts, only to be slashed and gutted all over again. And again.

Of course, this economy of casting may be by way of illustrating the monstrous impersonality of war but as a dramatic device it can become somewhat confusing — a fact wonderfully acknowledged by James Tucker whose every hammy entrance seems to say, “Yup, it’s me again!”

That’s not to say that Tamburlaine doesn’t have its merits. On the contrary, it has very many. Jude Owusu gives a career-defining performance as the protagonist, relishing Marlowe’s rich language and growing slowly more nutty and megalomaniac as the play proceeds. His motivation slowly shifts as the years fall away — at the start he resembles Mike Myers’ Goldmember, hopelessly attracted, nay addicted, to that most precious of metals; in his dotage, though, he’s pretty much trapped by habit, enacting his endless battles like Bob Dylan eeks out his never-ending tours, because it’s all he’s any good at and he’s utterly lost without it.

In his pomp though, Owusu’s Tamburlaine establishes his fearsome reputation with gusto — one creditably merciless warrior and one convincingly incendiary orator — twin attributes to which the rest of the cast continually attest. Over and over…Elsewhere, Mark Hadfield provides splendid, much welcome comic relief in the form of a procession of weak and dithering kings, and Anton Cross is chillingly borderline psychotic as Tamb’s skittish youngest son, Celebrinus. His reaction when his last remaining brother (the other having been stabbed to death by his dad for refusing to fight) is pronounced heir to the ailing potentate is a thrilling flinch which surely promises more decapitations down the road.

The programme makes much of the play’s contemporary relevance, vis-a-vis Trump and Putin’s present spear rattling, a point nicely underlined by the designer Tom Piper’s penchant for costuming the cast in non-era-specific long black leather coats and the use of plastic sheeting to create an abattoir behind which to butcher virgins. Overall, though, this Tamburlaine, cut down to a three-and-a-half hour edit from two separate very long works, plays out much like a pageant before us, mightily impressive to watch but never really engaging. Partly this may be because it comes so hard on the heels of the RSC’s recent ludicrously OTT Duchess Of Malfi, infamous for its oceans of blood. Here we get literally buckets of the stuff, chucked over a procession of victims to mark their gruesome passing. It’s a neat but familiar device that lacks the power to shock.

Which leaves us all a bit nonvalenced. There’s a word for you. Nonvalenced. The opposite of valenced, which means you are unable to feel pleasure in anything. Here we are well entertained but a bit worn down until we’re ultimately incapable of being horrified. Only once did I involuntarily shudder, when some king’s tongue got cut out and thrown across the stage. That was, I must admit, pretty yuck!

Which brings us to the end. Our hero (and it’s testament to Owusu’s portrayal that we consider him so after all his offhand technicolour cruelty) appears to die of bellyache. In principle, of course, this is a fine illustration of human folly — how no matter how rich and famous you are and how immortal you consider yourself, you could be Frank Sinatra himself and still no power within, on earth or beyond will deliver you from death (or taxes, as they say). Acting like a god doesn’t make you a god. There is no golden ticket. Now that may be as brutal a truth as anything, ever. But it makes for lame drama. Following all the hacking of limbs and tortuous hoo-ha, Tamburlaine shuffling off the ol’ coil cos of a pain in the gulliver’s a bit, y’know, again, meh…

The police report about the Watts’ real-life arrest concludes with a baby alligator. Now there’s a way to sign us off!