Tamburlaine

Christopher Marlowe

Yellow Earth

Arcola Theatre (Studio 2)

From 15 March 2017 to 08 April 2017

Review by Howard Loxton

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Marlowe’s Tamburlaine, a conqueror who “means to be a terror to the world,” is based on the historical Timur who in the fourteenth century controlled an empire from Egypt to southern Russia and central Asia.

His campaigns killed 17 million people (5% of the world’s entire population) but he called himself “the Sword of Islam,” supporting religion and encouraging conversion, and was a patron of art and architecture. This is the tale of his on-going conquests.

Marlowe knew what his audiences wanted; this was one of the first big hits of British theatre when first played in 1587. He emphasises the violence, the Eastern threat that had defeated the Christian forces of the Hospitallers. His tyrant starts as an uneducated Scythian shepherd, he even burns the Qur’an (though not in this production) and he gives him verse as spectacular as his conquests.

This production presents a truncated version of Marlowe’s two full-length plays. Cut by director Ng Choon Ping and his dramaturge Stewart Melton to two and a half hours plus interval and played with great momentum, it doesn’t linger on Marlowe’s language but gets on with the barebones of the story.

It is played gender-blind on a bare stage backed by a wall of white panels on which texts are projected that set up the history, help to identify characters and include a neat joke.

It is in modern dress, its (all but one) female cast made more androgynous by jodhpurs and boots and tweed jackets. Slipping a jacket on or off is a sign that the actor is changing character even as they do so.

Despite the clothes, there is no updating, no issuing of orders using modern media, no modern weapons. There are swords and daggers but none of the bloodbath that early audiences probably relished; deaths are treated symbolically. It emphasises the way in which Tamberlaine uses cruelty as policy, he sees it as a necessary part of his image if he is to exercise power. Only when he strangles one of his sons who fails to be warlike does rage seem to drive him and even then he is consciously making this death an example.

Lourdes Faberes’s black-clad Tamburlaine has a sinister smile; she already has the look of a sadist but in her sophisticated, well-spoken tyrant there is no trace of the rough Scythian shepherd. Marlowe’s “mighty line” (as Ben Jonson called it) and long sentences are a challenge to modern actors but Lourdes and her colleagues keep thoughts connected, breaths brief enough not to interrupt them.

From the start, she gives Tamberlaine enormous energy but as the play draws to an end it is flagging. That has a logic, since he is dying, but the long solo speech here needs less speed and more strength vocally. It could be a chance to show what Marlowe can sound like, after racing through most of it earlier.

While it plays down the gore, this production brings out the comedy. Leo Wan makes Persian Emperor Mycetes a camp weakling, undermining expectations of violent drama and perhaps making the cross-gender playing of other cast members seem more masculine. Melody Brown’s Turkish Emperor Bajazeth is in contrast a gruff, battle-worn general.

Fiona Hampton starts the play as Persian lord Meander but soon becomes Egyptian princess Zenocrate, encountered by Tamberlaine on her way through Scythia and whom he decides must be his bride. It is an elegant performance but there is no indication of what makes her so devoted to Tamberlaine, the feeling that makes him address her and mourn her death with such rich verse. What does become more clear, however, is the way in which, despite her devotion to this tyrant warrior, she can speak up for peace.

With Susan Hingley as Bajazeth’s wife and Amanda Maud as Zenocrate’s father and everyone except Faberes playing several other parts, you need the projected names identify the characters starting a new scene are helpful, along with different voicing. Wan alone has six roles including Tamburlaine’s pacific third son and other kings and soldiers.

Many of the smaller roles have just disappeared, along with great chunks of verse. This version retains the famous scene where Tamburlaine harnesses captive kings to his chariot and drives them round yelling, “holla, ye pamper'd jades of Asia!” but there is only one king and no chariot. Rushing around playing at jockey doesn't have quite the same effect.

Whittling this indulgent and overblown play down to its skeleton is in some ways revealing but it loses the excitement of its tempestuous theatricality and remarkable language, verse with a beat and a resonance that we get here instead from the percussion of Joji Hirota’s fine Taiko drumming which adds occasional drama without being integrated into the action.

Marlowe offers soaring verse not psychological studies and, while this cool presentation is easy to follow (it doesn’t really matter if you are not sure whose life he just ended, whose kingdom he’s conquered), you don’t really feel any involvement or care much for its characters or feel threatened.

There is an inserted posterised clip of a jazz singer which left me baffled. What is it there for? Indeed, what is this revival trying to tell us? There is a message for his own time, and for us, in the way that over-confident rulers don’t realise what a threat Tamburlaine is until it’s too late. There is a study of hubris and a reminder that death wins over all of us.

The cross-gender casting provides interest and an opportunity to display British East Asian talent and extend opportunity. Removing the gore and much of the verse that swamps action perhaps makes is easier to recognize modern parallels in this tale of ambition and conquest and it certainly becomes a more manageable length, but perhaps that also takes away the very things that made it an audience pleaser, leaving this carefully planned revival more worthy than it is exciting.