A sharp new take on Christopher Marlowe's classic from Yellow Earth Theatre
If Shakespeare has grand ideas about the human condition, his peer Christopher Marlowe is the guy with mud under his nails. While he pays lip-service to heaven, it’s barely a courtesy. His characters are brutally earth-bound.
This is something Yellow Earth Theatre – which supports work by British East Asian writers, directors and performers – conveys brilliantly. Ng Choon Ping’s adaptation of ‘Tamburlaine’ is stripped-back, clearly directed and ruthlessly sardonic.
Loosely based on real-life medieval Central Asian emperor Timur, Marlowe's Tamburlaine is basically the Terminator of the Persian Empire (encompassing present-day Iraq, Iran and Turkey, among other countries). He’s an unstoppable force, conquering kingdoms that fall like dominos.
Tamburlaine is a shepherd who rises from a disgruntled populace to soundly rub a succession of smug, elitist faces in the dirt. It’s impossible not to read present day populist uprisings into this, especially given the region of the world in which it's set. But Tamburlaine gets through so many countries, it’d be reductive to narrow the lens.
Ping acknowledge this with his place-less set design – just a white back wall onto which video is sometimes projected. Everything is pared back and abstracted. It’s power as a performance, with a crappy-looking crown handed around like pass-the-parcel by posturing rulers.
Gender-swapped casting brings this home – authority is role-play. Sometimes, actors switch characters from the same spot. In one scene, the wives of two emperors beat up their servants, enacting their husbands’ off-stage fighting. A splash of jet-black humour runs through everything.
The cast define their multiple roles clearly, with Fiona Hampton imbuing Zenocrate, Tamburlaine’s wife, with tragic dignity. They all give Marlowe’s sarcasm-dipped verse real oomph. Lourdes Faberes is a tremendous Tamburlaine – proud and fierce, and bewildered when mortality lands a knockout blow on myth.
Some gimmicky sight gags don’t amount to much, but otherwise this sharp production distils to its cynical essence Marlowe’s big, blunt portrait of people’s self-destructive, cyclical lust for power.