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MICHAEL BOYD, who ran the RSC for nine years from 2003, returns to Stratford with a play posing particular problems for modern audiences and makes it speak directly to them with the company’s most assured production in recent times.
Through his dramas, Christopher Marlowe — anarchist, atheist and sexual free-wheeler — delivers the ultimate question of Renaissance humanism. In a world without gods, can man become his own deity?
Master of the mighty line, Marlowe’s language has little of Shakespeare’s fluidity and less of his variety. Nor, driven by insatiable ambition, do his tragic heroes have the questing ambiguity characteristic of the Bard’s protagonists.
If the two parts of Tamburlaine are to work, a production requires an outstanding focal performance from its eponymous superman and this one has it with Jude Owusu’s Tamburlaine as he relentlessly pursues his career from local Scythian shepherd-turned-bandit to ferociously potent ruler of much of the medieval world.
He delivers Marlowe’s pulsing rhythms with a command that carries the audience into his world view, conveying an unswerving confidence in his self-appointed role as the scourge of God.
Always ruthless — when we meet him he nonchalantly breaks the neck of a mouthy captive — he develops from bad boy with an infectious, winning charm, always ready to seize a chance, into a callous slaughterer of thousands, even killing his own son for cowardice.
Although obsessed with Rosy McEwan’s “divine Zenocrate,” he off-handedly dismisses her plea for him to show mercy to the people of her home town Damascus, one of the numerous cities he systematically puts to the sword. Devastated, he marks her death by burning the town in which she perishes.
Among a splendid cast, doubling as the innumerable kings demolished by this killing machine, Sagar I M Arya’s Badazeth’s Turkish emperor, imprisoned in a kennel-like cage, and Debbie Corley as his wife are defiant victims of Tamburlaine’s gratuitous cruelty.
The strands of humour in the first half give way to a significantly darker mood in the second. It signals the tyrant’s fall as, presumably stricken with cancer, he threatens to “set black streamers in the firmament, to signify the slaughter of the gods.”
Boyd’s stunning production has no need to labour modern parallels with Marlowe’s bleak portrait. The realpolitik, bombastic rhetoric and the disregard for the suffering millions, along with the overweening ambitions of the Trumps and Putins, bridge the centuries.
Runs until December 1, box office rsc.org.uk
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