April 22, 2017, by Peter Kirwan

Tamburlaine (Yellow Earth) @ The Old Rep, Birmingham

It’s been more than a decade since I last saw a Yellow Earth production, the innovative King Lear that was part of the RSC’s Complete Works Festival, and that managed to simultaneously be boutique and epic. 2017’s short tour of Tamburlaine hit similar notes, with a company of only six actors and one musician performing a compressed version of both of Marlowe’s plays of the Asian wars in just two and a half hours. This was an ambitious undertaking, with much to enjoy, even if the overall purpose and value remained (to me, at least) somewhat unclear.

The production in many ways was damaged by its own advance publicity:

In an age when Trump can become leader of the Free World, conflict rages across the Middle East, Europe is increasingly divided and a new power from the East asserts its growing dominance, Marlowe’s classic takes on a new urgency and relevance for our time.

This was certainly a production I wanted to see; Tamburlaine’s geopolitics, rejection of religion, tyrannical liberators and masculine posturing all have much to say about the moments alluded to in the publicity. Yet Ng Choon Ping’s adaptation resolutely stayed clear of any such urgency or connection to contemporary politics, offering a disappointingly straightforward reading of the play, that was paradoxically both far too abbreviated and at least half an hour too long. With scenes rattled through, the characters had too little time to develop; yet this meant that (particularly in the first half) the structure felt even more episodic and repetitive than the play offers, with none of the contemporary resonance that might have helped raise the stakes for each new situation.

But focusing on what the production was, rather than what it wasn’t, some interesting strands emerged. By casting five women to one man (and having the one male actor, Leo Wan, play the least ‘masculine’ characters, including the feeble Mycetes and the pacifist son of Tamburlaine, Calyphas), the production emphasised the performativity of masculine military posturing. Lourdes Faberes was mesmerising as the title character, whether wielding riding crop or sword. With the fight scenes almost entirely excised, Tamburlaine’s conquests were a war of words, his confidence alone overpowering his enemies. His treatment of his foes centred around emasculation, whether bridling Orcanes, dangling food through cage bars to Bajazeth, or holding Mycetes’ crown out of reach. It was only Calyphas who was dignified with a bold ending, Tamburlaine taking a moment to seriously ask his son to stand up straight before snapping his neck.

In fact, Tamburlaine’s primary mode was one of dry humour. His self-assurance meant not merely that he brooked no dissent, but that he barely saw that dissent; resistance was met with a confused laugh, and he took pleasure in looking down on his beaten foes with a raised eyebrow. The early dispossession of Mycetes, in which Tamburlaine mocked the befuddled coward with a swagger and a wry smile, demonstrated from the start his sense of superiority. Later, he was seen more in relation to his sons, where his extravagant acts (including biting a wound into his own arm, with some suitably gruesome stage blood) kept some levity even as he approached death. The swaggering masculinity was mirrored throughout in the superb live taiko drumming of Joji Hirota, giving this production an energising and distinctive aural texture.

In compressing the two plays, Ping undertook some serious reorganisation. Zabina (Susan Hingley) and Bajazeth (Melody Brown) now survived long into the second half of the play, and Tamburlaine’s burning of the Qu’ran (represented on video screen by the disappearance of words) was conducted while they were still alive precisely in order to belittle their faith. While the first half of the production was repetitive, the second half offered payoffs, first revisiting the imprisoned Zabina and Bajazeth and allowing their death scenes to play out at length (disappointingly, there was no ‘braining’ here, just a pair of large exhalations before a slumping of the bodies), and then portraying Zenocrate (Fiona Hampton) as driven to distraction and then death in her reaction to their tragedy. For the first three quarters of the production, in fact, Tamburlaine and Zenocrate’s relationship was the central, defining thread. The first half closed on Tamburlaine promising the whole of Asia for her as she knelt before him, her face contorted in despair at the pressure of the death weighing down on her. Their shared scene as she declined was one of the production’s most effective moments of pathos, Tamburlaine acknowledging his own impotence as she smothered her face in lipstick and died before him.

Yet at this crucial point, the production chose to turn off all the lights and show a jazz video, in one of the more unfathomable decisions I’ve seen in the theatre recently. In some ways, the production would have been stronger for finishing at this point, the arc of Tamburlaine and Zenocrate’s relationship coming to its natural end, and what followed felt like an extended coda. Wan did good work as Calyphas, distinguishing the resistance of the eldest son to the unthinking militarism of his younger brothers (Hingley and Amanda Maud), but the production didn’t really find its momentum again until the closing speech, which Faberes began as a vaunting lecture on political conquest and ended with Tamburlaine alone onstage, the lights fading gradually as he offered to take on the heavens.

The cast were excellent throughout, particularly in doing what they could to distinguish the many roles they each took on, but the material made this difficult, and it was particularly frustrating that (with the odd exception) there appeared to be no thematic rationale underpinning the doubling that might have assisted both characterisation and audience cognition. When the adaptation found its through lines, particularly in Tamburlaine’s attempts to come to terms with the ‘weakness’ within his family, or in the extended arc of Bajazeth and Zabina, the production showed the potential available with this excellent cast if they had had more focused material to work with. As it was, this was a bold attempt and a frequently insightful, but ultimately surprisingly conventional, Tamburlaine.

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