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Tamburlaine at the Arcola Theatre – Review

Tamburlaine Yellow Earth: Lourdes Faberes Melody Brown
Tamburlaine Yellow Earth: Lourdes Faberes Melody Brown – Photo by Robert Workman

An extremely plain set adorns this production of Tamburlaine, which never really struck fear or terror in the way in which a play of this nature should have done. The play is loosely based on Timur (1336-1405), a conqueror who ruled Persia (now Iran) and Central Asia (now Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan), who, as the show’s prologue informs the audience, caused the deaths of around 5 per cent of the then world’s population through military conquests. It is almost a pity, then, that the play doesn’t show us any battle scenes in which some idea of the scale of destruction caused could be imagined.

Not that this production didn’t have at least one clear opportunity to do so. Part way through the second half, a music video with some extremely blurred images plays – the lyrics have little, if anything, to do with the play, and it is hardly the sort of music that the world of playwright Christopher Marlowe would have recognised when Tamburlaine was written in 1587. Video technology could have instead been used to depict in some way the many dead and injured in the aftermath of an attack by Tamburlaine’s troops.

The show is swiftly paced, which is perhaps inevitable, given the condensing of two five-act plays (Tamburlaine being in two parts) into two-and-a-half hours. Part One in particular is, to be blunt, confusing, partly because too many details are left out that would aid understanding of the narrative. Despite some useful projections displaying character names at the appropriate time, the lack of set and props and only the most minimal of costume changes in between scenes meant that one character could be playing a monarch one moment and then a commoner the next. Unlike Shakespeare, here, the working class is just as likely as the ruling class to speak in verse, so not even the text could necessarily be relied upon to assist with placing who is whom at any given moment.

A darkly comical element in this production may not have been quite so prominent in a full-length and/or fully-staged version. But, as ever with Elizabethan plays, the various soliloquies and direct addresses to the audience help engage and then maintain interest. Tamburlaine (Lourdes Faberes) speaks more often than not with subtlety, eschewing an arguably more conventional hair-dryer treatment with regard to delivery of lines. But this is too likeable a tyrant, almost a loveable rogue, and the understated and borderline blasé manner of this supposedly bold and fearless ruler makes his victories seem implausibly easy. This does not come across as ‘triumph over adversity’ in the slightest.

As one might suspect in a show of this nature, quite a few characters die. With such a small cast playing so many characters, there are, slightly comically, multiple resurrections. There was little, if any, palpable chemistry between Tamburlaine and his wife Zenocrate (Fiona Hampton), which made Tamburlaine’s apparent redoubled anger against the world when Zenocrate enters the afterlife peculiar at best.

With some justification, there has been discussion in certain quarters in recent years about diverse casting in shows. This is a production that demonstrates that embracing diversity and indulging in blind casting does not, in and of itself, create a riveting performance. That said, there are some great supporting parts played convincingly by Leo Wan and the aforementioned Hampton. A challenging production – and at least the live drumming (Joji Hirota) was enjoyable and spot on.

3 Star Review

Review by Chris Omaweng

A lowly shepherd rises to power – and conquers half the known world.
Tamburlaine is a breathtaking interrogation of power, masculinity and the limits of violence.
In his new adaptation for Yellow Earth theatre company, Ng Choon Ping directs a startling production with a British East Asian cast and live taiko drumming. Lourdes Faberes makes her Arcola debut as Tamburlaine.

As ‘strongman’ leaders exert their influence, and new power from the East asserts its growing dominance, Christopher Marlowe’s classic tale takes on a new urgency and relevance for our time.

Tamburlaine is supported by the Cockayne Foundation and the Foyle Foundation.

Melody Brown
Lourdes Faberes
Fiona Hampton
Susan Hingley
Amanda Maud
Leo Wan
Joji Hirota
Live taiko drumming

Text – Christopher Marlowe
Direction – Ng Choon Ping
Adaptation – Ng Choon Ping
Design – Moi Tran
Video Design – Gillian Tan
Lighting Design – Neill Brinkworth
Movement – Rose Ryan
Dramaturgy – Stewart Melton
Creative Producer – Kumiko Mendl
A production by Yellow Earth.

15/03/2017 – 08/04/2017

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Review of Kenny Morgan at the Arcola Theatre – May 2016
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