Tamburlaine, RSC Stratford Upon Avon, 5*****; Rod Dungate

Stratford Upon Avon

Tamburlaine: Christopher Marlowe


RSC, The Swan

Runs 3h, 20m, One interval: till 1 December




Review: Rod Dungate, 27 August 2018


A great revelation

Michael Boyd has achieved an astounding achievement with this Marlowe production. Who’d have ever thought Tamburlaine could be so totally thrilling?

The Renaissance playwrights were an intriguing bunch – frequently forward thinking, radical, frequently in trouble with the law. Marlowe was a real subversive – bringing the relationship between Edward and Gaveston to the fore in Edward , presenting a Jew as a decent, honest individual in Jew of Malta. So why, you may ask (I do) did Marlowe write two plays extolling the career of a 14th Century rampaging monster?

In his production, Michael Boyd answers that question. But he’s taken a firm hand with the plays first. He put them on a diet and sent them off to the gym. Back they come as one play, full of energy, with language that is like bricks but sparkles like diamonds; and really muscular – how they must have worked out!

In Marlowe’s version, Tamburlaine’s rise from shepherd to the greatest ruler on earth (greater in Tamburlaine’s own mind than God) is told with breath-taking speed. Rulers stand and fall, their crowns are bartered, stolen, given away as prizes. But as Tamburlaine’s empire grows so he becomes crueller and crueller to maintain his grip. He carries out acts of unspeakable cruelty. So that more crowns, like pass-the-parcel can be handed on. Great battles are spoken of, thousands are killed or executed – men, women, children. But we never see this, Marlowe’s focus is on the Game of Crowns – or should we call it The Game of Throes.

Here we see Marlowe’s point. The killing, the waste of human life is about . . . nothing. What is nationhood? – Nothing. There is personal vanity, greed and a desire for power. Put Marlowe’s play in the context of Elizabethan England, with its struggle for nationhood, with its battles for the throne and we see Marlowe’s subversion. Put his play in the context of the wars around the globe today and we see the play still speaks, even shouts, for us today.

Boyd handles all these complexities with superb ease. His production moves at a cracking pace but his marvellous company have taken Marlowe’s language on board. We do not miss a word, not a single word. Tom Piper’s sparce setting shares this muscular style, and the whole is punctuates and supported with a terrific percussive score from James Jones. At certain moment, the actors, with great skill, shift gear slightly in their speaking and their verse becomes part of the percussion ensemble. The effete is astounding.

This is a large and diverse company; the joy with which they work is tangible. Jude Owusu carries the role of Tamburlaine with ease. He is sensitive to all the character’s tones and is physically powerful.

In Marlowe’s version, what does Tamburlaine achieve? As in life, he dies. And that rather makes Marlowe’s point.

(Credits will follow)

Photo by Ellie Kurtz © RSC



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