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Marlowe's drama full of contemporary resonance

Tamburlaine, Swan Theatre, Stratford to December 1.

Productions of Marlowe plays have done well at the Swan in recent years and Tamburlaine perhaps even surpasses Volpone and The Jew of Malta.

Michael Boyd’s production fills the play with contemporary resonance - an initially rag-bag army sweeping through areas we now call the Middle East, seizing all before it with unparalleled brutality as Christian-Muslim alliances to stop it founder on mistrust and betrayal, uncomfortably recalls those early images of ISIS successes in Iraq. More than that, this is a production which also taps into our current era’s fixation on strong leaders. Tamburlaine is all strength and confidence, as well as being charismatic. Jude Owuso, in the title role, exudes all these qualities in an outstanding performance. Theridimas, ably played by Edmund Wiseman, sent to bring Tamburlaine, a mere bandit, to heel, is easily swayed by him and becomes Tamburlaine’s loyal lieutenant. Zenocrate, beautiful daughter of the Soldan of Egypt, is kidnapped by Tamburlaine on a journey to be betrothed. She too falls quickly under his spell, eventually marrying him and bearing him three sons. She sees at close quarters what her husband is - she even has to plead at one point for her father’s life - but her devotion to Tamburlaine is complete. The savage, cruel nature of the demagogue is always at the forefront in this production. Deaths are frequent and bloody, but cleverly handled. The dead rise again, to take on another part in this ensemble production, but still wearing the blood-soaked clothes and sometimes even the scars of their previous incarnation. Blood is liberally applied by paintbrush at a character’s demise. More savage deaths receive a bucket of gore. By the interval, the stage resembles the floor of an abbatoir. There is no light relief in Marlowe’s text, therefore it’s another point of credit in the production that humour is squeezed in where possible. The performances of Mark Hadfield in three roles as two hapless kings and a jailer are little comic gems, and James Tucker, who plays a bewildering list of characters, imbues all of them with a self-serving cynicism and slyly steals nearly every scene he’s in. Tamburlaine probably hasn’t been performed much in recent times because its epic scale poses staging challenges. This production is consistently inventive in its use of the whole auditorium space, and the simple device of a small, wheeled cage initially used to imprison Bajazeth becoming Tamburlaine’s war chariot drawn by subjected rulers, is visually arresting. The fact the cage is filled with gold crowns is emblematic of the debased currency of kingship the play presents. Virtually all the main protagonists become kings. Even Almeda the jailer is rewarded with a crown for assisting the escape of Callapine, the son of Bajazeth. As Tamburlaine rides around on his chariot, flailing his whip, brilliantly accompanied by the percussion-based musical direction, we recognise that for all the kingdoms he’s acquired, he’s still essentially a bandit.

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Picture by Ellie Kurttz (c) RSC

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