Tuesday, 21 March 2017
by Christopher Marlowe
If there is one thing that defines Christopher Marlowe's take on Tamburlaine, it is a rumbustious manipulation of the exotic and the violent to titillate audiences.
So it seems very unusual for an East Asian theatre company Yellow Earth to strip the tale of the nomad Mongol conqueror Tamburlaine of its oriental context and place it in something sounding like an English boarding school for the well-to-do, abandoned to its posh, affluent students by its teachers.
In this version Tamburlaine (Lourdes Faberes) becomes a kind of sadistic Flashman left to run riot through the dorms. This does not imply a criticism, it just feels rather disorientating, while adding a visceral post colonial subtext.
In fact this turned out to be a fascinating evening, albeit with a few longeurs as the catalogue of conquests is played out - the Scythian shepherd comes, is mocked by incumbent rulers who are then promptly conquered.
The cast of six, five women and one man, in an adaptation by director Ng Choon Ping, are mostly clad in tight fitting jodphurs and riding boots as if Mummy and Daddy has paid the extra fee for riding lessons or even as a passing reference to Jilly Cooper's bonkfest Riders with its fetishizing of belts and riding crops.
In fact, this is all a perfectly legitimate interpretation where the focus in the dramaturged text is on a feudal hierarchy upset by the newcomer, who having the means to enter this world, conducts his campaign with a wry serial savagery.
The two blood-and-thunder Marlowe plays about Tamburlaine have been concertinaed into two and a half hours. Tamburlaine starts off the glossy, self-conscious strutting young warrior dressed in slinky black with a silver dagger at his side and ends the weary patriarch with riding crop who has stormed through empires and transgressed religions.
Along the way he entices Theridamas (Amanda Maud) to switch sides, cages Turkish Emperor Bajazeth (Melody Brown) and Empress Sabina (Susan Hingley), slaughters pleading virgins
The action plays out on a bare stage with marbled floor and a back wall of white squares with projections naming characters when it's needed as the actors metamorphosize from one role to another.
There's a glimpse of Edward II in Lee Wan's Persian Emperor with sly costuming in the shape of a black crown with the chin strap of an Asian rice hat (design by Moi Tran). .
Yet there are also times when the staging is a little too subtle and cryptic for its own good. The sudden insertion of a Billy Holiday jazz number and deliberately fuzzy projections of a singer and saxophonist felt just a little too cryptic.
There is, however, a nice line in sardonic wit in the costuming and addressing of the audience. The call of Zenocrate (Fiona Hampton), who becomes the reluctant consort of Tamburlaine to save her life, for a girdle is answered with an ingenious prop.
It's a brave venture to put on the epic Tamberlaine in the Arcola's smaller space with six actors and it can be a bit hit and miss. But the stylistic mash up and exceptional Taiko drumming soundscape created by Joji Hirota do make for an evocative, often exciting and unsettling production. So this Tamburlaine eventually conquered TLT and her chariot who pay homage with an upper range amber light.