FringeReview UK 2017
British East Asian company Yellow Earth’s revival of a minimal Tamburlaine with inverts traditional reception neatly. Ng Choon Ping’s production starts at the Arcola, then tours. Five women and one man dressed in timeless colonial jodphurs and tweeds stalk the tiny Studio 2 against Moi Tran’s white wall flickeringly imprinted with Gillian Tan’s video design. This flags up a prologue, names of protagonists as multi-roling actors step up, even blood-lines. Joji Hirota’s ritual drums provide impressively evocative soundscapes to sieges, massacres, truces and local family tiffs. Till April 8th then tours to Oxford, Colchester and Birmingham.
Ng Choon Ping’s Arcola revival of a minimal Tamburlaine with British East Asian company Yellow Earth looks at first like an even more inspired Read Not Dead Globe scratch of a 16th century play. It’s certainly inspired.
Marlowe’s 1587 two part ten-act epic smashed into the Elizabethan stage; everything followed. Its size, scope, sheer undramatic gape of skulls from Afghanistan to the Mediterranean and Hungry suggests Read Not Dead’s the best place for it. It has too much energy however, as Marlowe’s openly admiring portrayal fuses his hubris with Timor-I-Leng’s (in Tamburlaine’s own tongue). Not only is Christian treachery pilloried, but in the original a burning of the Koran and challenge to God with every abasement of imperial power lovingly detailed.
Into this Marlowe poured pioneering language, the epic ambition of a psychopath who caused the death of 5% of the world’s already plague-ravaged population (as we’re reminded here), the occasional eddy of tenderness. Marlowe’s sardonically delighted take is given scope – it’s the lever to modernity and oft-chased relevance, seized on here.
There’s a neat inversion of tradition: European actors garbed in exotica. Five women and one man dressed in timeless colonial jodphurs and tweeds stalk the tiny Studio 2 against Moi Tran’s white wall flickeringly imprinted with Gillian Tan’s video design. This flags up a prologue, names of protagonists as multi-roling actors step up, even blood-lines. Joji Hirota’s ritual drums provide impressively evocative soundscapes to sieges, massacres, truces, local family tiffs.
Some might find this sameness even more confusing, and it’s true not every characterisation’s differentiated. However signalling who’s on stage and where is mostly very clear indeed. There are occasional veils – the Virgins’ pleas in white go unheeded and they’re spiked; it’s Damascus by the way. Minimal props as well as the (effectively) wailing white wall of another site of massacre tell tales enough. Melody Brown’s long-suffering king Bajazeth famines and occasionally feasts in a cage for years, fed scraps by his wife Zabina (Susan Hingley); there’s a shuffling off of tweed on occasion, and Lourdes Faberes’s black-suited Tamburlaine is distinct. When not required everyone sits next to audience members.
Acting’s uniformly pacey and engaging, if occasionally uniform in pulse, but energy never flags till Tamburlaine does, as s/he’s meant to.
We’re plunged into the first major revolt and defection as Theridimas (Amanda Maud) deserts the weak king of Persia. This is Leo Wan who relishes weedy parts, ultimately as Calyphas, Tamburlaine’s third ‘effeminate’ son; he makes a distinct contribution. Maud struts dignified male roles, senatorial and Machiavelian. Fiona Hampton’s Zenocrate brings winsome admiration for her ravishing husband, suffering the droopy part of watching her former suitor writhe to death, pleas for sparing of her native Damascus unheeded. As the revolting Callapine (avenging son of the caged one) she’s given less to go on.
Hingley’s Zabina who nobly hangs herself (the original has this couple dash their brains out) after Brown’s Bajazeth’s finally expired makes a clear contribution as eternal suppliant, whether here or luckless Virgin, and in the sparkier role of Sigismund of Hungary, persuaded to treachery. Brown’s underlying energy as long-suffering realist is particularly notable whether as Bajazeth, or say the Governor of Damascus. There’s a subversive flash of humour, curiously Marlovian.
The challenge lies in what to leave out. We hear nothing of the arc of Tamburlaine’s visionary shepherd the ‘paltry Scythian’ from Samarkand who dreams and dares. At the end we’re under-exposed to Tamburlaine’s daring God. In a play notable for its lack of drama – there’s no conflict, Tamburlaine always wins and dies naturally – it’s essential we utilise all Marlowe gives as shape and motive to his bloody pageant.
Lourdes Faberes paces like an ice-queen Turandot suddenly given an outlet for her genocidal tendencies. Turandot famously had luckless suitors decapitated: one feels she lacked scope. Faberes might in this trajectory have more to flesh the grinning dimensions of her role, which she pursues memorably with flashes of anger, hauteur and shivering withdrawal when a son or her servant Death goes AWOL; but without (textually) the merest mainspring Marlowe provides. We’re otherwise pitched into the monotony of conquests and crushed rebellion the play lavishes scene after scene.
Best moments come when Faberes bites off a chunk of her hand to instil backbone, and the ‘pampered jades of Asia’ speech with six kings as horses, here just Brown, are fittingly whipped into shape as Faberes topples with exhaustion before spouting these lines. It presages Tamburlaine’s long fade, abdominal pains, some time after Zenocrate essays a mortality speech. In a production with time – Tamburlaine rarely affords that – there may have grown more nuance between the lovers, and dysfunctional family. Even Faberes can’t sheath all this into a lean reading. Some horrors – a mother stabbing her son elsewhere – are abated.
This abridgment then hasn’t maximised the contrasts possible at the beginning and end. The trouble was everyone loved Tamburlaine Part One so much Marlowe decided on a sequel –first of its kind. He did discover more pathos and variety though only after more of the same.
What Yellow Earth manage so well is to forge a contemporary life for Tamburlaine – Eurocentric parallels are obvious – in a cut-down recalling Churchill’s Light Shining From Buckinghamshire, that masterly Civil War epic scored for six players. The continual whip-jockeying as it were for dominance, Timor’s, Europe’s and now US and IS, is underscored but never overdone let alone over-droned.
Stylised, stylish and sassy in the best sense, this touring production makes Tamburlaine accessible. With caveats noted, it renders the first early-modern English language play the greatest service: a horrible relevance.