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RSC Tamburlaine at Swan Theatre - Review

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by Alison Brinkworth (subscribe)
Freelance journalist in Birmingham with a passion for the dynamic theatre, art, food and fashion scene in Britain's 'Second City'.
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Violent Drama Of Warrior At RSC
Christopher Marlowe's two plays based on the life of violent warrior and conqueror Amir Timur Gurgan have been combined for this reworking of a production by director Michael Boyd.

tamburlaine, RSC, review, Jude Owusu
Tamburlaine is a blood-thirsty play


Following on from success with Tamburlaine in New York, Boyd has revisited it to create an updated version for our time and the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC).

It plays at The Swan Theatre in Stratford upon Avon until 1 December and leading the cast is charismatic Jude Owusu, who comes across as an appealing anti-hero. That's because he manages to charm his way between being an ambitious and opportunistic warrior and a violent psychopath. Not everyone could get away with breaking the neck of a prisoner or killing their own son because they are a disappointment.

tamburlaine, RSC, review, Jude Owusu
The plastic sheet is a sign of the violence to come


It's a bloody, violent tale from the start and the hanging plastic sheets, similar to those found in a butcher's freezer, give an inkling of what's to come. It's much later that a row of virgins are executed in front of them, blood splattering on to the plastic - you have been warned.

Despite all the violence, this version of Tamburlaine is more often done through striking, unsettling and atmospheric imagery rather than pools of blood spreading across the stage, as seen in other recent productions at The Swan Theatre in the past year.

Refreshingly, Boyd isn't gratuitous with the many deaths but has a child pour a jug of blood over a character in their dying moments. That's a much better alternative than seeing some of the macabre killlings, including a couple bashing their heads in against a cage rather than remain Tamburlaine's prisoners.

Director Boyd described Tamburlaine as an "urgent play for our time" amid the rise of strong populist leaders around the world, adding that "we are living now through a time when angry rhetoric, and determined, self-dramatising men hold increasing sway over our lives".

RSC,Tamburlaine, Michael Boyd, Jude Owusu
Jude Owusu is charasmatic on stage as Tamburlaine


There is a modern element of that in this production but Boyd is subtle enough not to incorporate costumes or likenesses of Putin, Trump and the like into this performance.

Instead, there is a mix of traditional historic dress with elements of modernism. It's a stark simple set with several ladders and a moving platform that allows the actors to move around on different levels. While the costumes merge somewhere between that of the ancient Middle East and current on-trend bohemian fashions.

The set and costumes have been designed by Tom Piper, who won the Olivier award for the design of the Histories cycle. He more recently received acclaim for designing the 2014 installation of poppies at the Tower of London – Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red - which was the original concept of Paul Cummins.

Tamburlaine, RSC, Rosy McEwen
Impressive Rosy McEwen and Mark Hadfield, who both play numerous roles


In this production, the design is nothing as dramatic as the poppies installation. It is more bare and bleak using light and darkness and accessories and the actors to create a disturbing overture.

In terms of the actors, there is only a relatively small cast playing the many kings and soldiers conquered by Tamburlaine over and over again, rising from the dead to breathe new life into a different character. It's sometimes a little confusing but becomes more easy to follow as you become familiar with the process.

At one point, actor Mark Hadfield delightfully reminds the audience who he's playing now with a wink of the eye. It's not amiss as there is a strain of black comedy running throughout this production, which is a welcome relief to the gruesome storyline.

Interestingly, when it comes to playing several parts, I found Rosy McEwen had more impact in her role as a man playing a grown-up Callapine than she did as a slightly bland Zenocrate - Tamburlaine's wife.

Tamburlaine, RSC
Unsettling memorable scenes in this new RSC production


Empowered by Callapine's character, McEwen transformed impressively on stage, even when playing a corpse being transported around in a wheelchair - yet another of those unsettling moments that play on the mind.

Following the rise of this shepherd, turned gun-for-hire, turned emperor of much of the eastern world is engrossing but his staggering brutality makes it a play not for the faint-hearted.

It's long too at just shy of three and a half hours including an interval.

While the constant battles, action and underhand dealings are fascinating, the momentum does start to dip towards the final quarter of the performance.

The strongest thing about this reworking of Tamburlaine is by far the lead Jude Owusu. He is perfectly cast with an intensity yet also, bizarrely, a charm, when on stage.

It needed a strong performer to play such a mighty warrior and it is Owusu that conquers all in this new production.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5


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Why? Violent new epic story by the RSC
When: Until December 1
Phone: 01789 403493
Where: Swan Theatre, Waterside, Stratford upon Avon
Cost: From £5
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