cast line up

Edmund Wiseman as Theridamas, Jude Owusu as Tamburlaine, Riad L Richie as Usumcasane, David Rubin as Techelles and Salman Akhtar as Amyras. Pictures: Ellie Kurttz


The Royal Shakespeare Company

The Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon


The usual place to meet members of the cast, if you can entrap them in the back room, is The Dirty Duck, halfway between the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Swan Theatre and its reopened The Other Place.

One advantage of encountering actors hot off the mark is that they can put some extra perspective on the emergence of the finished product. By lucky happenstance after the three hours of Christopher Marlowe’s Tamburlaine (Tamburlaine the Great, actually), staged in the intimate Swan - a curious irony for one who rose from the rural equivalent of the Gorbals or an Irish potato famine to control half the known world - I chanced to nobble one such cast member.

I shan’t say which, but he – it was a he - had given a pretty admirably shaped performance right through, and seemed fresh as a daisy despite that, in a late night supermarket (I think One Stop) as we both purchased needed victuals.

‘What was so impressive for us,’ he said, ‘was that, given the play is – well, perhaps not that good, Michael (Boyd) took it and did such amazing things with it. One had no idea how he would approach it. But he was so inventive in the way he treated it, produced ideas out of nowhere, made the text speak: it simply came alive – for us the cast, as well (one hopes) for the audience.’ My spy wouldn’t have understood why I felt he was one of the best in the cast – consistent, apt, constantly working facially to communicate the impression of an intermittent – but definitely not clichéd – thug in Tamburlaine’s itinerant retinue, solid but sinister in stance, and so on.

But one notable thing about Boyd’s staging was that many of the not quite ‘extra’ but lesser, ancillary roles were so well taken. James Tucker was glorious in a series of half a dozen bustling, slightly schoolmasterly vignettes. Edmund Wiseman as Theridamas, the first turncoat though not the first crook, is allotted fewer lines than he deserved. He delivered all he had with striking confidence and clarity.


Sagar I M Arya as the caged Bajazeth

We were awarded a whole series of potentates – most importantly Persian and Turkish (Sagar I M Arya, a terrific presence even when being hauled around in a cage, the sort of thing that, with a ladder, a makeshift feast table and entries from the unseen depths, amounted to the set), but Median, Syrian, Egyptian, Arabian, Tunisian, Moroccan. Add in Hungary and Bohemia, and Timur himself later mentions Nubia: this chap on a horse seems a real rival to Guderian’s (=Hitler’s) tanks. Occasionally these petty dictators were workaday performances, but mostly they were thoroughly competent.                

Tamburlaine, or Timur, is the central Eurasian shepherd lad who goes on to conquer swathes of three continents (he actually alludes to Alexander). The Persians are the first to go down the drain – thanks partly to internal, fraternal strife (Mark Hadfield on the throne, David Sturzaker the Prince John-like brother waiting to grab it). Pleasingly, despite some ghastly clichéd RSC drums and percussion at the start (James Jones: his soft music during Part 2, all done with solo violin (Sarah Farmer) and – here – soft percussion, was simply beautiful, the kind of ‘sweet airs’ Caliban heard) which made one fear for the evening, Boyd actually kept onstage battling (another potential cliché, but not here) to a minimum 

The love object of the play makes a change from the fractious and at times tedious (even when much cut) conquests, or the sly, phantom negotiations Timur engages in before swatting his enemies. Thus while Zainab Hasan, for instance, shone as a feisty and intelligent maid (Anippe), and Debbie Korley gave us a pretty good Margaret of Anjou or Volumnia as Zamina, indignant wife of the humiliated Turkish emperor Bajazeth, and excellent at hysteria, Zenocrate (Rosy McEwen), daughter of the overborne Sultan (‘Saldan’) of Egypt (whose territory reached right up the coast to Syria), provided the ravishing launch board for what proved Boyd’s most exquisite inventiveness.

Her Zenocrate was a treasure. Dressed mainly – even in death - in a Cordelia-like white, or cream-white - Tom Piper’s enticing costumes were, as elsewhere, more alluring than his non-set – she retains that purity of white when she does a quick change from apparent corpse to play the grown up boy and legitimate Turkish heir with Harry Monmouth or perhaps, Macbeth’s Malcolm propensities.

Every time McEwen was on stage, girl or Viola-like or Imogen-like boy, things lifted. It was the very opposite of the rather ponderous, stereotypical start to Part 1, and various other moments when black-clad semi-sophisticated yobbos tramped across the stage. Stretched lifeless on a bier, or sat upright in a chair, she ultimately became the ghost of the piece. Every inch of her acted.


Rosy McEwen as Zenocrate

What about the book and lyrics, as it were – the script? That too is pretty ponderous (hence my interlocutor’s admiration for Boyd’s initiatives to remedy it). Marlowe wrote it about, possibly only just before, Shakespeare set about his Henry VI trilogy. There too there is the danger that just one more military joust, one more bumping off (Duke Humphrey, Richard of York, etc.) might generate tedium. But there the whole point is that the pendulum swings, repeatedly, York-Lancaster, and that gives the history lesson some momentum. Whereas here, no one can match or beat Tamburlaine, so there is, perhaps, less variety.

The other problem – though I don’t remember it in The Jew of Malta, my first Marlowe play, where Barabas has a fistful of good lines – is that Marlowe rarely does what Shakespeare does. He doesn’t come up with an exquisite simile, a comparison to something completely different, a mind-boggling epithet, a line you simply cannot forget, a verbal sortie, a surprise allusion that brings to mind an utterly different world from the one we are actually in. Marlowe tells a story: narrative rules.

So does the text of Tamburlaine the Great plod? Well, yes, part of the time. Here and there we cry out for imagery, and all we get is another insult. It’s a bit like having the Philippi scenes of Julius Caesar without Caesar’s ‘For I am constant as the Northern star’ speech (mega dramatic irony when you know he’ll be dead in 2 minutes); or Antony’s funeral oration.

However, one or two soliloquies in the Marlowe really did register: The Doctor’s (James Tucker’s) medical dissertation – quite at odds with anything else in the play; and Tucker’s intriguingly prolonged speech as a kind of vizier to the Persian court – fantastically enunciated, with marvellous consonants a model to any young actor. Or Tamburlaine’s too, of course, above all his impassioned grieving over his dead amour. And the passages of dialogue as with the recent Cicero plays, did also produce some moments of not just intensity but magic, thanks to some of Marlowe’s better endeavours. The duet between Ary’s Bajazeth and Korley’s Zabina before their demise was one of the most moving bits in the while of Boyd’s staging.

Blood is the god of war’. And we got plenty of that. Blood dripped from the very rafters of the Swan, on curtains and backdrops, all over the stage. The most potent image, if not perhaps quite varied enough in its application, was the disposal of one despot after another by the simple conceit of applying paint (aptly crimson, hence really blood-coloured) to the faces and chests of the fallen. Possibly not original, but it did work, and despite the repeats we were hypnotised every time.

The most affecting moment was when Dev Prabhakar, on duty all night as the resident boy (apart from Turkish Callapine/Rosy), playing Bajazeth’s young son (McEwen being his older incarnation), as chief anointer paints his own parents: a final farewell, or an aspiration, even as a littl’un, to grab back the throne for himself?

Incidentally, I thought Boyd had under directed young Dev, and maybe (or not) his alternates, Aaryan and Harish. He had not been given the lessons he deserved, how to generate more ample reactions when onstage, facial options, a variety of stances. As (latterly) chief decorator, one got the feeling he had to invent for himself. Not bad, considering. But an oversight (contrast Edward’s Boys, just up the road,, where every twitch counts).

Here and there Marlowe the Classical scholar (there are faint echoes of Virgil in this play) takes a leap towards poetry one might compare with Shakespeare: one I noted (Korley’s Zabina speaking, not Zenocrate or Tamburlaine) was:

A hell as hopeless and as full of fear
 As are the blasted banks of Erebus,
Where shaking ghosts with ever-howling groans
Hover about the ugly ferryman
To get a passage to Elysium!

or Zenocrate’s

A thousand sorrows to my martyr’d soul
Whom should I wish the fatal victory,
When my poor pleasures are divided thus,
And rack’d by duty from my cursed heart?’

Not a million miles from Juliet. Some gems may have fallen victim, too, to the cutter’s scissors.


Jude Owusu as Tamburlaine

Something, apart from McEwen (in her debut season), had to lift this show up and over all hurdles. And that, not surprisingly, was Jude Owusu as Tamburlaine himself. What an immaculate actor, effortless dominating the stage whenever he put half a toe on it, a true master.

We’d seen him, to advantage, in Julius Caesar during the RSC’s thunderous Roman (as opposed to thunderous medieval) season. He is a real presence. Somehow despite the batterings and shatterings of half the known world already, the ultimate dictator only showed at the end, where he actually in cold blood orders deaths (by hanging) of individuals, some not all that important so slightly needless. One felt, at the close, how murderously, Ghengis-Khan like, he could impinge on ordinary lives.

And his ambition? When we hear, rather disconcertingly, mention of ‘The Antarctic Pole’ we remember how Alexander marched into India: Timur actually had China in his sights when he expired. To whom might one compare Owusu’s Timur, this ‘infamous tyrant’, to the Persians ‘this Scythian thief’? In our day Mugabe who turned tyrant from hero and freedom fighter and massacred the Matabele? Attila, perhaps, who also had his eye on Hungary? Ivan the Terrible? Mahomet’s successors swirling across Africa into Spain? The whole grisly unfolding of Titus Andronicus (a richer text, incidentally)?

Each of course, had his henchmen. My informant was in fact David Rubin (Tamburlaine’s lieutenant, Techelles). Ever faithful, never disobeying, but not a brute, quite. I thought him one of the best performers onstage. It’s a bit like Joseph Kloska as Tiro, Cicero’s interlocutor in the RSC’s Imperium. Dependable to the end, Techelles is indispensable: there at the outset, there at the demise.

 It helped that Tom Piper once again came up trumps, with a frequent change of costume for Tamburlaine (from his fur-draped shepherd lad’s beginning) that really made the difference, tweaked the visual impression and pleased the eye. He looked nobly dressed, but never acceded to any real western luxury. Owusu’s fabulous speaking was yet more varied than the attire – witness his ability to rant (though not unduly: more command) but then his sudden drop in voice addressing the unexpectedly beloved Egyptian Zenocrate. One didn’t need to look for a better Tamburlaine: this was surely exactly as he should be. Marlowe would have marvelled. It should be performed in Deptford, in his memory. To 01-12-18

Roderic Dunnett


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