“I mean to be a terror to the world,” sneers the bloodthirsty Tamburlaine; except he’s now a she, performed by actress Lourdes Faberes with a gleaming hunting knife on her hip.
In Yellow Earth Theatre’s production of the Christopher Marlowe classic, six performers (five women, one man, all British East Asian) unravel the violent tale of Tamburlaine, the Scythian shepherd who would become one of the great Central Asian conquerors of the 14th century. Director Ng Choon Ping’s condensed take on Tamburlaine’s Parts One and Two trace his rise from a ruthless military man to iron-fisted emperor to besieged incumbent. Around him, enemies fall, are humiliated, then rise again; his desperate displays of bravado and machismo are, in turn, forced upon his sons who struggle to live up to his name.
This stripped-down, gender-bending production – where the women dominate the ‘strong’ male parts and the sole male actor (a very capable Leo Wan) revels in playing characters who are emasculated or ineffectual – immediately calls to mind Phyllida Lloyd’s all-female production of Julius Caesar. It’s a clever lens through which to dissect the jostling themes of war-mongering and toxic masculinity that run throughout the play. The shift in focus to Tamburlaine’s women characters and the production’s female performers – Tamburlaine’s wife and voice of reason Zenocrate (Fiona Hampton) in particular – quickly foregrounds the irrationality of war and the hubris of the male characters and counterparts, also questioning if these warring impulses are masculine by nature or if we’ve been conditioned to believe that’s the case.
Marlowe’s play was first staged in the late 1500s, a time where England was deeply suspicious of Catholicism, as well as Islam, and brokering and breaking treaties with neighbouring countries and empires as it also attempted to explore and colonise other parts of the globe. In their smart tweed and jodhpurs and the occasional riding crop, the cast often resembles a group of posh kids at an equestrian prep school suddenly given the keys to the kingdom. With this visual analogy in hand, director Ng emphasises the juvenile nature of war as kings and rulers rapidly switch sides, revel in betrayal, torture their enemies, barter over territories and parcel out countries as if they were playing a casual game of Risk or 16th-century Game of Thrones.
Disclaimer: I watched Tamburlaine on one of its preview nights when the cast were still easing into the run and finessing their performances; there were a handful of flubbed lines and some performers sounded like they were still struggling to recall or racing through large swathes of text, but it’s likely that as the run goes on, the ensemble will settle into their parts and the quick character changes required of a lean team juggling multiple roles. The rhythmic live taiko drumming adds a frisson of urgency to the work, vibrating deliciously throughout the subterranean studio space; less so the multimedia design, which often felt like an afterthought and contained several misspelled character names.
It’s easy to see the resonances that Tamburlaine has with contemporary geopolitics – including its sharp perspectives on religion, ethnicity and gender – but it’s also very much a crowd-pleasing, violent epic that contains unexpected moments of comedy. This production is at its best when it takes care to combine the humorous and horrific in the same breath, less so during some of its talky segments where Marlowe’s vivid language is regurgitated and sped through, or its indecision over symbolic violence.
Additionally, this adapted Tamburlaine is a timely reminder that even though our world is no longer one controlled by Alexander the Great or Genghis Khan, the war machine is still at work five hundred years later – still concentrated in the hands of small, powerful, and trigger-happy groups of elites. Does it matter who rises to power next? Does an evil ruler’s mortality help or hinder the spread of his diseased ideology? The sins of the fathers become the sins of their sons, and the wheel of war spins on.
Tamburlaine is on at the Arcola Theatre until 8th April 2017. Click here for more details.