Arcola Theatre, 6th April 2017
In many ways this was a brave piece of theatre. Tamburlaine, in two parts, was Christopher Marlowe’s first performed solo play, written in his early 20s, and which changed the course of English drama and massively influenced all the big boys of Elizabethan/Jacobean drama including our Will. Blank verse with lots of tasty, hyperbolic flourish, big themes, heaps of action, proper heroes and villains. No wonder the punters loved him.
And obviously he, Marlowe, was proper rock n roll – drink and baccy, gluttony, fighting, sexy times across the spectrum, heresy/atheism, conning, spying. Lust for life indeed. And this play is about the life and works of Mongol leader Timur (recast as Scythian), which mostly consisted of trying to conquer the entire known world, and who was also, I suspect, pretty rock n roll as well, and not a man plagued by self-doubt.
So no half measures here. Yellow Earth Theatre is a British East Asian company which has risen to the challenge in conjunction with young director Ng Choon Ping, who has adapted the plays to strip them back to a manageable couple of hours. In the Arcola’s smaller space with just a light wall, a few well chosen props and the taiko percussion of Joji Hirota, they do an admirable job of bringing the play to life. Given the streamlining of the text, the doubling/tripling/quadrupling of some of some characters and the abrupt shifts in location there are times when the action teeters towards a kind of hyped up, declamatory travelogue (Persia, Scythia, Egypt, Turkey, Africa, even Blighty gets a mention), but for the most part the cast does a great job in telling the story and particularly delivering the verse.
The production does capture the interplay between the personal and the geo-political and the tragedy of ambition. It also smartly draws out the innate conflict between differing world-views, Christian, Muslim and Judaism, and how these world-views serve the interests of power. This is not a play that goes easy on religion, and reminds us to beware not to underestimate a man on a mission, in this case being the “scourge of god” – the contemporary parallels are obvious. And it explores the inevitable disappointment of succession in dynastic family (always a potboiler though the solution to a workshy son here might strike some as rather drastic). Hard to single out from a uniformly strong cast but Lourdes Faberes as the eponymous, fearsome tyrant, and Leo Wan in multiple roles, caught my eye.
So all in all a fine effort which might have been better served by more resource. Anyway, Yellow Earth are now firmly on my radar. This is off on a tour to Oxford, Colchester and Birmingham in the next couple of weeks so definitely worth a look.
As an aside when I was a sad, friendless, little tween I had an unhealthy obsession with the rise of the Mongol Empire. It you are/were similar I highly recommend you seek out the film Mongol: The Rise to Power of Genghis Khan, a co-production led by a Russia directing team which explores the early life of its subject. Very satisfying.