Former Artistic Director Michael Boyd talks about returning to the RSC to direct Christopher Marlowe's Tamburlaine.

You directed Tamburlaine in New York in 2014. Have you made changes for this version?

The answer to that question will mostly emerge out of the RSC's Clapham rehearsal room. We had a lot of success with Tamburlaine in New York, so it wasn’t a straightforward decision to revisit the play for the RSC, but in the end I felt that the world and our understanding of the nature of tyranny have changed so much since 2014 that we will have no choice but to reread the play anew for a contemporary audience.

The story has been likened to House of Cards because of all the politics and power play. Do you agree?

Tamburlaine makes House of Cards look like the Green Party AGM...

How did you tackle staging such a sprawling epic?

The more I work on the two plays, the more I admire their giddy but taut construction and the more I see Part Two as a genuine and radical development beyond Part One. That said, I have edited the plays quite tightly to bring them down to one evening of no more than three hours' playing time, and rationalised the huge cast of characters into a smaller number of recognisable, returning people who “survive” their deaths to challenge and pursue the seemingly invincible Tamburlaine with ever-increasing authority and resonance, much as I did in The Histories.

How would you describe Tamburlaine as a character?

Tamburlaine begins as a brilliant, playful and almost chivalrous underdog, ideally qualified to exploit the corruption and weakness of moribund rulers to the point where he himself emerges as a ruthless potentate. He is the ultimate victor in the survival of the fittest, winning all that he desires, until he discovers that desire is infinite, ultimate victory is ultimately lonely, and victims never really sleep or go away.

You've been directing a lot of operas recently. How is that different to directing drama?

Opera is even more obviously make believe than spoken word theatre and it encourages a disciplined playfulness from the word go, always in tension with and alert to the rigours and the mystery of the song and the orchestra. It’s a great collaborative leap of faith and I love it.

Michael Boyd in white shirt and black jacket.
Director Michael Boyd.

Why do you like working with Tom Piper on designs for your shows?

There are probably quite a few designers as exciting as Tom in two dimensions, but few can match him in three, and very few in four. He understands space, he understands time and story, and, thank god, he understands me!

How do you plot the journey of an actor when they have to play multiple roles in a performance?

As an audience member, I like to form a relationship with an actor, and I try as director/editor to respect the relationship between each actor and the audience and nurture its development and meaning through the course of the production. With some plays of great scale, a lot of doubling is financially necessary and, like most limitations, that can also be liberating, giving you greater access to deeper, archetypal qualities in the characters and the story than might have been possible with a cast of thousands.

Do you want the audience to feel culpable in this production, such as when Tamburlaine addresses them directly?

Not culpable but implicated. Tamburlaine is not just a portrait of tyranny but also of the "tyrannised", and I wouldn’t like the audience to just leave the show depressed or laden with passive horror. Marlowe doesn’t flinch in his vivid dramatisation of the seductive nature of autocracy and rule by fear but he reveals, more than anything, its bankruptcy in the end.

Why should audiences come and see the show?

We are living now through a time when angry rhetoric and determined self-dramatising men hold increasing sway over our lives. The received wisdoms of western liberal democracy can look weak and even moribund when faced with the strong men of the American, Russian and Chinese right. In this context, Tamburlaine seems to be an urgent play for our time. At any time it remains one of the great plays of the English Renaissance and I don’t know why it is rarely produced. Perhaps it has offered a portrait which the English have preferred not to recognise.

Do you think this show is particularly interesting for young people?

Tamburlaine is written by a 23-year-old with the restless and reckless energy of a new life bursting into the world, unencumbered with the received pieties of the age, and the play retains its power to shock more than 400 years later. The resentments and anger of today’s disenfranchised young are reflected in both Tamburlaine’s rhetoric and the protests of his victims.

What do you think are the key differences between Marlowe and Shakespeare's plays?

The more I work on Marlowe, the more I see him as the master in whose footsteps Shakespeare followed. It’s maybe fruitless to mourn the loss of the great duel that might have emerged but for Marlowe’s early death, as it was Marlowe’s fierce metabolism that drove him towards the heights and great personal danger and by his death make room for Shakespeare to grow. Marlowe never mellowed.