Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon – until 1 December 2018
Jude Owusu cuts a blood-soaked swathe through history in an ambitious, epic and savage retelling of Christopher Marlowe’s Tamburlaine at the Swan Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon.
Not for the first time this season the Royal Shakespeare Company has let rip with the red stuff. Earlier this year the Swan was awash with gore for Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi. Now Michael Boyd returns to the RSC with a revival of his 2014 production of Tamburlaine that offers a portrait of absolute power at its most charismatic and violent.
In him, Marlowe has created possibly the most barbaric and ferocious, fictitious megalomaniac ever in what was surely a reflection or criticism of Queen Elizabeth I’s own globalisation plans. And, at a time when both the east and west have their share of despots and tyrants, it’s surely right that Tamburlaine makes a reappearance.
At three and a half hours – with Boyd condensing Parts I and II into one play – we don’t get to hear how this Scythian shepherd got a foothold on power but you can’t help feeling that it was simply through brute force. We join the story when Mark Hadfield’s King of Persia (with the actor doing his best Richard III impression) is under siege from the usurper and his army of merciless cutthroats.
Owusu’s terrifying Tamburlaine swaggers on stage with a determined confidence. He wants to be the monarch of the east – for starters – and nothing is going to stop his rise to power.
The ensemble of more than 20 frequently find themselves playing more than one role as Tamburlaine invades one country after another.
You have to feel sorry for actor David Sturzaker, whose turn as various Eastern royals and governors, results in him being butchered four times.
And James Tucker, as royal adviser to many a king, gives the audience a resigned look now and again as a precursor to his inevitable fate.
Yet amid all the repetitive bloodshed and brutality is a love story between this power-hungry peasant and the ethereal Zenocrate (Rosy McEwen), daughter of an Egyptian king who, after being snatched and raped finds happiness and devotion with this scourge of the Middle East.
Taburlaine isn’t entirely one long, merciless, trail of death and destruction – although when the bucket appears you know that someone is set to be dispatched in Boyd’s own inimitable way – but it can feel like it.
There’s not much finesse to this conquering savage. He moves from one country to another, collecting crowns and kingdoms the way others collect stamps.
He issues orders that every man, woman and child should be slaughtered, ruling with terror rather than diplomacy and politics.
His iron fist style even extends to his own family with shocking results. This isn’t a play to watch after a heavy meal.
But this is an outstanding vehicle for Jude Owusu who displays a commanding presence on stage, whether he’s leading a rout or, later, now middle aged, a father, uncomprehending that his sons are reluctant to follow in his footsteps.
Hadfield’s appearances are absurdly comical and welcome if only to provide a moment of lightness and levity amid the carnage.
His kings are petulant, child-like and vulnerable. He returns after one slaying in another role, remarking to the audience: “Yes, I’m now the sultan!”.
There is a standout performance from Sagar I M Arya as Bajazeth, king of the Turks, whose fierce resistance to the demands of the warlord results in him being captured, tortured and paraded by Tamburlaine.
Elsewhere enslaved prisoners are yoked to his chariot and Vestal Virgins are slaughtered en masse.
Worse, a prisoner has his tongue hacked out, which isn’t pleasant – for him or us. The stomach-churning article, looking like a little bloody turd, lands with a thump onto the stage and is left to be kicked and flattened by other actors for the rest of the performance.
A blistering good yarn if you have the stomach for it.