Tamburlaine review at Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon – ‘exhilarating, blood-soaked epic’

Jude Owusu and Mark Hadfield in Tamburlaine. Photo: Ellie Kurttz Jude Owusu and Mark Hadfield in Tamburlaine. Photo: Ellie Kurttz

There are buckets of blood in Michael Boyd’s production of Tamburlaine. Literally. This gripping staging of Christopher Marlowe’s telling of a lowly shepherd turned all-conquering despot subtly stylises the savage violence of the play. The brutality is still shocking, but it’s also borderline symbolic: an element of human nature to be reflected on, as well as appalled by.

As Tamburlaine, Jude Owusu captures the ruler’s senseless viciousness, but he is also enigmatic, laddish with his mates, and scarily convinces in his suggestion that a proximity to bloodshed quickly anaesthetises people to its horrors.

One of the most compelling aspects of the play is the relationship between Zenocrate (Rosy McEwen) and Tamburlaine, her captor. McEwen crystallises beautifully the raging mixture of loathing, lust and love Zenocrate feels for her eventual husband.

Her death scene, in which the tear-streaked Tamburlaine pledges to have her embalmed, widely commemorated in statues and never interred until he dies, is disconcerting in how it reveals the softly unspooling private grief of a public tyrant, briefly flipping existing sympathies.

Boyd’s long-term collaborator, designer Tom Piper, has located Marlowe’s play in an industrial abattoir-like space. Swords gradually give way to machine guns, while the costumes mix modern and ancient, perhaps as a nod to how cycles of violence repeat throughout history.

Not everything quite works. Those buckets sometimes overly sanitise the gore (excellent tongue-cutting, though) and semi-comedic interludes are generally unnecessary. But overall this is drum-beating, blood-soaked, machismo theatre. And it’s executed with precision.

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Jude Owusu gives a thunderous performance in Marlowe’s exhilarating, blood-soaked epic