Tamburlaine, Arcola Theatre

Stylistically revolutionary as it was when first written, Marlowe’s Tamburlaine is still a clumsy brute of a play (not unlike Shakespeare’s first tragedy, Titus Andronicus) that has plenty of challenges when it comes to its staging. But the messy and violent journey from common thief to emperor includes some extraordinary moments that appealed to wider audiences in a way that went on to shape Shakespeare and his other contemporaries. There are shadows of the Richard III, Mark Anthony and Henry VI that are yet to come, and delightful to behold in this rarely staged play. Director Ng Choon Ping trims a lot of the excess script and gives it a clean, quick pace but in doing so, the story loses rigour. In an attempt to it tidy up, the story is flattened to a relentless quest with little light and shade.

The cast of six are dressed in contemporary riding gear of jodhpurs, jackets and boots. The leisure uniform of the contemporary upper classes who foxhunt at weekends, it is too far removed from the visceral battles and torture of 1330s warfare that riddle the text. This sanitisation stands out all the more against a plain white back wall and bare stage, interrupted only by projected character names – it is all to clean and clinical. Though Tamburlaine gradually adopts the uniform from a string vest and leggings, and it’s a good gender neutral choice for the mostly-female cast, it clashes with the gritty violence of the play. If these costumes were to become progressively bloodier and dirty, they would work. Instead, the singular use of stage blood is so cautiously executed as to not mess them that it’s almost laughable.

The most powerful choice in this play that’s so focused on hetero masculinity is to cast five women, playing the roles as women rather than as men. Solitary man Leo Wan often plays the weak, ineffective characters, a pawn in this kingdom of amazons. Tamburlaine takes form as a ruthless femme fatale with no regard for her wife’s pleas to save the kingdom of her birth. To rule the world, she must behave like a man even in the face of obvious femininity – all too true in today’s world as well as that of Elizabeth I’s. She is hard through and through, keeping rival Bajazeth in a dog cage, and bringing up her children as “men” despite two of them being female. The queerness and S&M undertones alter the relationship dynamics in ways that aren’t present with the characters gendered as written and it’s fascinating to behold.

The pace is suitably lively, but the short scenes barrel on with few pauses. The moments that are softer and slower pack more punch as consequence, but they are so few that there isn’t much of a sense of climax. The second half contains some stylised movement sequences and deaths that have no precedence in the first half and also reflect the cleanliness of the production concept. Again, it’s a choice that just doesn’t suit the story. This is a messy, bloody play but an all too tidy concept.

The company are generally strong, with Fiona Hampton showing particularly good range as Tamburlaine’s wife Zenocrate. Tamburlaine unfortunately doesn’t get the opportunity for much nuance, but Lourdes Faberes carries her ferociousness well. There is some over-wrought delivery from some of the cast, though these moments are forgivably few.

This Tamburlaine‘s strengths are in its casting and performance, which go a long way to distract from the incongruous staging and design choices. But there’s a sense that Yellow Earth is playing it safe by smoothing over the jagged edges and gore of this Elizabethan groundbreaker. Nevertheless, the East Asian company’s work is vital in the face of the Print Room’s Whitewashing of a play set in China. 

Tamburlaine runs through 8 April.

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