RSC Swan Theatre
FOR a man who conquered most of the known world Tamburlaine lived quite a boring life. Fight a war, win, bank the material spoils, decide what to do with anyone left standing – usually a choice of kill, imprison, rape or a combination of same. Then start another war. And another.
Across a history lesson’s worth of lands and empires he brought terror and the terrible, picking up crown after crown but – aside from world domination – seemingly without any real purpose in mind.
Perhaps we just live in a different age, but when confronted with such relentless carnage we can’t help ourselves from trying to understand why. And that’s where the problems start.
Taken at face value Michael Boyd’s heavyweight production runs the risk of being nothing more than three hours of war talk, threats, brutality and grief – all delivered in the obligatory Swan Theatre shouting style, underscored by unnecessary percussive intrusions. But every now and then there are moments, scenes which just provide something more human, something to grasp.
Tamburlaine blooding his sons in the tactics and psyche of war, a mother choosing to kill her son rather than allow him to be taken, the cascade of burnt pages as one religion’s holy books are burned – all these somehow make the unending tide of violence a little less one-dimensional.
And what a tide it is. Few cast members escape the blood bucket; many return in new, but remarkably similar, guises to endure the cycle afresh. The gore is perhaps a few gallons short of the Swan’s recent Duchess of Malfi but the pools of crimson and the dragging of white clothes is suspiciously deja vu.
Tom Piper’s design is efficient without being showy. There’s a few nice touches in using the Swan’s height and balconies, although we should be used to that now. Costuming slides nicely into the modern as history, not to mention the tediously itemised armies, march on.
There’s nice lighting from the pit, atmospheric smoke and a musical score that would not be missed.
Jude Owusu’s performance as Tamburlaine is superb. It’s not an easy task to draw any sort of audience sympathy toward someone who contemplates executing the innocent quite so lightly. In aging the character he wins a little support, but this is not an easy character and he has a lot of faults to forgive.
Rosy McEwen, principally as Tamburlaine’s queen Zenocrate, is given the greatest scope to take some of the bombast out of the acting and does so to good effect. There are fine performances elsewhere from a well-matched cast and – this being the RSC of the moment – some gratuitous and not wholly well-judged bits of audience participation.
In the end though, as death follows death, it all becomes a little numbing. The first killing, a brutal and sudden neck-break wins a gasp; by the time the twentieth body hits the stage it’s more of a yawn. Hard to feel genuine empathy with a character you fell you’ve seen die a horrible death twenty minutes ago.
Tamburlaine runs until December 1. Visit www.rsc.org.uk for further details.