Pros: Percussionist Joji Hirota provides a stunning live score.
Cons: With the actors covering several roles without changing their costumes or using significant props, Tamburlaine is quite hard to follow.
Written by Christopher Marlowe when he was only 23, Tamburlaine the Great is considered the very first play to become successful in the London public stage and is also seminal for the successive works by William Shakespeare. Inspired by the life of the Central Asian emperor Timur, this play is a complex psychological drama in which a bloodthirsty shepherd who rises to lord conqueror is in contrast with a family man and loving husband.
Promoting the mission of Yellow Earth Theatre, which aims to give more visibility to British East Asian performers, director Ng Choon Ping proposes an interesting but overly-ambitious adaptation of both parts of the Tamburlaine saga. In this two-hour performance a majority female cast of six is called to cover a range of twenty-four characters, which are differentiated by ever-so-subtle costume changes and a near-absent use of props. With the transition between roles often happening on the stage – as with an actor putting on or taking off a blazer or a scarf – little help is offered by their names eventually being projected onto the wall. If to this you add also the hostile Elizabethan speech, and the invariably stiff accent that this requires, you might imagine how hard to follow Tamburlaine could be – especially for someone whose first language isn’t English. Moreover Marlowe’s blank verse, which calls for impeccable elocution, is undermined by a few slips of the tongue.
Despite loving the idea that the five women in the cast are assigned male characters, I feel that this also brings about some limitations. For example, the tenderness of Tamburlaine (Lourdes Faberes) as a husband is visually diminished by the lack of physicality with his wife Zenocrate (Fiona Hampton) but, if fully expressed, would divert the original topic of the play from the depiction of a ruthless soldier and loving companion to an LGBT-focused discussion of gender relevance. Nevertheless, Lourdes Faberes delivers a unique and powerful rendition of Tamburlaine. She’s strong, menacing and beautiful, her presence filling the whole auditorium and her ego flooding the bare set, in perfect tune with Neill Brinkworth’s stark lighting.
The stunning live musical accompaniment – courtesy of the Japanese multi-percussionist Joji Hirota – helped me to keep focused throughout the show. This, together with the sharp dialogue and the briefness of the scenes, prevented my brain from switching off on a few occasions where I felt I was about to lose the thread.
Tamburlaine fails to build proper drama; the emotions conveyed are unintentionally too mild for a play whose main character claims his intention is ‘to be a terror to the world’ and is held responsible for the death of 5% of the world population. Not even a spillage of fake blood in a disturbing scene can help to heighten the tension of this forward-thinking production which translates great intentions into uncertain results and, bizarrely, features Billie Holiday’s Fine and Mellow.
Adapted and Directed by: Ng Choon Ping
Author: Christopher Marlowe
Producer: Yellow Earth Theatre
Box Office: 020 7503 1646
Booking Link: https://www.arcolatheatre.com/event/tamburlaine/
Booking Until: 8 April 2017