Tamburlaine review – stylish take on Marlowe's tale of toxic masculinity

Arcola, London
A predominantly female cast return the story to its Asian origins in Yellow Earth’s adaptation of the Elizabethan epic

An outsize play about an outsize personality, Christopher Marlowe’s rangy drama about the lowly shepherd who became a world-conquering warrior was a massive hit for the 23-year-old in 1587, when Elizabethan England was on the brink of war with Spain.

It’s no surprise that it’s rarely revived now. A gore-fest written in two parts and running to 10 acts, Tamburlaine has defeated better resourced companies, on far bigger stages, than the British east Asian company Yellow Earth – whose adaptation at the Arcola pares it back to a mere two and half hours, using a predominantly female cast and returning the story to its Asian origins.

Ng Choon Ping’s production is played out on a bare stage with a screen offering handy clarification on who is portraying each character in a cast charged with many roles. It has a stylish simplicity – there is no hint of blood or any scent of real violence until the final half hour. In this version, the caged Bajazeth (Melody Brown) and his wife, Zabina (Susan Hingley), don’t bash their brains out but expire with just a nod of the head. Even in a cut-down version there is plenty to be exhausted by in this tale of barbaric atrocities and colonising ambition. There is no getting away from the fact that this man, who during his advances across the globe is estimated to have slaughtered 5% of the world’s population, is viewed as something of a flawed hero by Marlowe – when now, of course, we would put him on trial as a war criminal.

Leo Wan as King of Arabia and Melody Brown as Bajazeth in Tamburlaine
Leo Wan as King of Arabia and Melody Brown as Bajazeth in Tamburlaine. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

The production plays up the way smugly buffoonish leaders and princes, confident in their right to rule, fail to realise the threat that Tamburlaine presents until it is too late and his rise is assured. It also shows how a toxic masculinity infects both public and private discourse as only Tamburlaine’s idea of what it means to be a man holds sway.

The predominantly female cast, led by Lourdes Faberes as a Tamburlaine who has an icy power rather than fiery energy, serve to highlight the absurdities and dangers of all this excessive testosterone. Love, as experienced by Fiona Hampton’s Zenocrate – who becomes rather enamoured by her warmongering husband – is just another kind of slavery.

Despite a game cast and the clarity of the staging, this is not an easy play to like. The young Marlowe was good at poetry and epic sweep, but Tamburlaine is more about pomp than psychological acuity and depth. It would be a few years before Elizabethan theatre created characters with an inner life.

The effect is of one damned thing after another, as Tamburlaine crosses the world bringing terror and leaving death and destruction in his wake. By the end, when it turns out that the one thing he can’t conquer is death, he seems rather tired. I was, too.

Contributor

Lyn Gardner

The GuardianTramp

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