Hot on the big-sandalled heels of Imperium is another testosterone-fuelled RSC drama about men who rule. It is not hard to see why Tamburlaine is rarely staged. Often sumptuous, it is also fluorescent. Unremittingly bloody and declamatory, it could easily be a tedious gore-and-roar drama, but Michael Boyd’s production is transfixing.
Not that Boyd stints on grisliness. It would be a travesty to do so. The Scythian shepherd who pronounced himself the scourge of God – Christopher Marlowe based his play on the 14th-century warlord Amir Timur Gurgan – built his power on systematic slaughter, with no possibility of moral qualms. In the space of some three-and-a-half hours, two parents kill their children; a would-be rapist is tricked by his victim into stabbing her to death; one neck is loudly broken; four virgins have their guts spattered across a plastic screen; a man and woman dash their brains out on the bars of a cage; a tongue is ripped out and thrown on to the stage – not the only echo of King Lear. Oh and Tamburlaine uses regal captives to pull his chariot through the streets.
In Marlowe’s vision, Tamburlaine imposes himself on the fleshy world around him with absolute certainty, as if he were making dead matter into his own work of art: the Damien Hirst of the tyrant community. Jude Owusu transmits this with absolute conviction, not least because of what he does not do: there are no wild-beast feats or obvious pyrotechnics. He is level in his delivery; he contains his strength of movement. A crack of the whip here, a prowling shoulder movement there, but mostly steady purposefulness. At the very end, when overtaken by illness, he slackens and slows – as if his sinews and tongue had been dropped by a puppet master. Up to then, he seems not so much to be exercising will as to be will personified.
“How can you fancy one that looks so fierce?” Tamburlaine’s lover, Zenocrate, is asked. It is not a very shrewd sexual question – but it goes to the centre of the audience’s reaction to Marlowe’s play. Tamburlaine acts sickeningly and talks stupendously. Are spectators galvanised by his cruelty – or beguiled by his eloquence? Boyd’s staging, which Tom Piper’s design makes both austere and sumptuous – shows that psychological delicacy is not the only way a play has of being complex.
Boyd also brings out some unexpected notes. It is worth being reminded that the play contains a plea to “pity poor Damascus”. A strong exchange between Zenocrate and Zabina, wife of the Turkish Bajazeth, is so sharp and precise that it sets up an under-flare of feminism. Rosy McEwen is beautifully blade-like as she turns from scepticism to love; Debbie Korley is molten, ferocious – matching Bajazeth (Sagar IM Arya has the most impressive voice on stage) with her power. And when Tamburlaine himself melts in love, Owusu burnishes his adjectives as if polishing armour.
Pericles may carry the name of a king, but the dominant force in Emily Lim’s production is not the titular hero, impressive though Ashley Zhangazha is in the role. The idea that a strutting male is always likely to be in pole position at the theatre is one of the assumptions questioned in this staging, which is part of Public Acts, an initiative to remake the notion of what the National Theatre can be and do. Inspired by the Public Theater’s programme of participatory theatre in New York, and working together with the Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch, the project brings together a small number of professional actors with a huge cast drawn from eight different organisations, among them a hip-hop dance company and a gospel choir.
Lim has described Public Acts as “a movement” in which audiences will see for the first time “people like me” on the Olivier stage. Here are black and brown and white faces, wheelchair users, extremely small children and – more unusually – the elderly. Chris Bush’s very free version only occasionally uses words from Shakespeare’s fragmentary fairytale, though when it does so the passages are irresistible. How lovely is the line in which the king’s lost daughter proves her tender heart by confessing that she once accidentally trod on a worm – but “I wept for it”: the irresistible Audrey Brisson is the perfect person to give the words their peculiar comic sadness.
In what looks to be a trend – later this autumn the Young Vic is putting on a musical Twelfth Night – Jim Fortune’s easy-on-the-ear “salt-water lullabies” provide another stage language. There is marvellously intricate percussion from the Bhavan Centre Drummers and irresistible buoyancy from the Youthsayers Ska Band. Vocal highlights include the professional beauty of Naana Agyei-Ampadu’s voice and a mesmerising, keening lament – perhaps the most searching moment of the evening – by the London Bulgarian Choir.
Different modes, different languages, different degrees of success. Pericles is part Britain’s Got Talent (there’s a breakdance by a chap who is hardly more than a toddler), part panto (a kazoo band, a waspish drag artiste), part folk art (maypole and some dodgy speaking of the verse), part inspiration. The real star of the show is its mighty chorus: that’s to say, the whole varied cast. They show, as few plays have managed, how to take charge of the huge Olivier stage. Singing of homelessness, loss and restoration, they hold up lamps against the dark.
Star ratings (out of five)
• Tamburlaine is at the Swan, Stratford-upon-Avon, until 1 Dec
• Pericles was at the Olivier, London SE1