Tamburlaine by Christopher Marlowe. Adapted and directed by Ng Choon Ping for Yellow Earth Theatre at the Old Fire Station, Oxford, 13 April 2017.
Reviewed by Peter Malin
All textual references are to Christopher Marlowe, Tamburlaine the Great: Parts I and II, ed. by John D. Jump, Regents Renaissance Drama Series (London: Arnold, 1967).
Marlowe’s thundering drama of uncontrollable ambition, power and world-changing conquest is now so rarely performed that it would have been a crime to miss this production by Yellow Earth Theatre. Director Ng Choon Ping has condensed the two plays into a swiftly moving two and a half hours (including 30-minute interval); cast its extensive dramatis personae from a mere six actors (five women and a man); and crammed it into the small black box of Oxford’s Old Fire Station studio theatre. Despite some reservations, I found it an exhilarating experience, particularly in the actors’ confident relish of Marlowe’s extravagant language.
Most of the plays’ major episodes remained in place, even the frequently omitted intrigues involving Sigismund, Frederick and Orcanes at the start of Part 2. There was inevitably much abridgement and editing, with the text rearranged to provide a more coherent dramatic construction that consolidated both plays into an integrated whole. Sometimes this resulted in a loss of consistency in characterisation, though this was hardly noticeable with actors doubling and trebling like mad. Among the most significant acts of restructuring was the reidentification of the Turkish emperor, Bajazeth, whom Marlowe does not introduce until Act 3 of Part 1, as the brother of the Persian king Mycetes, replacing the Cosroe of the original. In addition, the deaths of Bajazeth and his wife Zabina were displaced from Act 5 scene 1 of Part 1 to the later stages of the Part 2 material, so that they had apparently spent sixteen years in captivity and could therefore coexist with their grown-up son, Callapine. Bajazeth’s progress was thus counterpointed with that of Tamburlaine throughout the play, providing much-needed stability in a narrative where other significant characters pass speedily through as temporary figures in the pell-mell progression of one conflict after another. A similar effect was produced by delaying the death of Zenocrate from Act 2 scene 4 of Part 2 to a much later position, strengthening the sense that her relationship with Tamburlaine is the structural and thematic core of the play; in the original, her death leaves a dramatic void which can make the remainder of the play seem like a long-drawn-out anti-climax. Delaying her death was partly achieved by bringing forward Tamburlaine’s climactic burning of the Koran to a moment preceding the deaths of Bajazeth, Zabina and Zenocrate. This created a significant shift in the plays’ moral arc, so that Tamburlaine’s sudden illness and death no longer registered as a direct and immediate consequence of his act of blasphemy. Instead, his challenge to Mahomet to exact revenge on him was apparently fulfilled in Zenocrate’s death, leaving Tamburlaine bereft but battling on for the rest of the play.
As well as the cuts and restructurings, there were some telling additions to the text. One of the most effective was the rewriting of the brief scene between Calyphas and Perdicas (Part 2, 4.1.60-74), replacing the card-game of the original with a rhyming competition, the touching outcome of which was a shared rendition of ‘The Passionate Shepherd to his Love’. This had the effect of making Tamburlaine’s despised eldest son more sympathetic than the cowardly weakling of the text, rendering his father’s sudden execution of him – here by a horribly audible breaking of his neck – much more shocking.
On the face of it, Tamburlaine seems hardly suitable for such a pared-back presentation as it was given in this production. The set consisted of a large white screen, set at a slight angle and split into two unequal parts for the second half. On this were projected, at irregular intervals, everything from a pre-show summary of the play’s historical back-story and regular indications of which character was about to speak, to the representation of an advancing army by multiple images of the word ‘HORSE’ bearing down on Tamburlaine’s enemies. More traditionally atmospheric was Joji Hirota’s percussive sound-score, played live from an elaborate stage-right alcove by (I assume from the programme) Eri Kaishima. This was resonatingly impressive and made a striking contrast with the recorded pre-play music, Billie Holiday’s 1957 blues number, ‘Fine and Mellow’ (‘My man don’t love me, | Treats me oh so mean’). The repetition of this following Zenocrate’s death, accompanied by onscreen film of one of its earliest performances (available on YouTube), brought the play’s epic magniloquence down to the level of real human emotion.
The production’s dominant costume choice was of upper-class British riding gear: short, tight jackets, white shirts, jodhpurs, boots, riding crops etc. This was the world of Jilly Cooper’s novels – a far cry both from the battlefields of medieval Asia and the theatres of Elizabethan London. Or perhaps we were meant to think of British colonial expats pursuing their aristocratic pastimes in subjugated ‘exotic’ territories. I wouldn’t say this was distracting so much as mildly puzzling; in any case, I was impressed by the adept switching of jackets, changing of hairstyles and grabbing of props that indicated lightning character changes by the actors, who spent most of their offstage moments sitting at the sides, or even in the front row of the audience.
Lourdes Faberes, as Tamburlaine, was the only actor confined to a single role, and she made the most of her character’s absolute domination of the play’s reimagined historical world. With her strong, deep voice and commanding demeanour, Faberes created a compellingly fierce and cruel conqueror of nations, an aspiring, egomaniacal despot with an unshakable faith in his own divinity. We were not prompted to identify this Tamburlaine with any specific modern dictator, but the plays’ rich lexicon of Middle-Eastern place names – Egypt, Turkey, Syria; Jerusalem, Aleppo, Damascus – could not help but evoke the images that daily disfigure the news media of our own time. Though her diction occasionally lacked clarity, Faberes made the most of Tamburlaine’s flights of diamond-hard, lyric poetry, but she did rather throw away the famous line, ‘Holla, ye pampered jades of Asia!’ (Part 2, 4.3.1), having been exhausted by racing her imagined chariot, drawn here by only one captive king, round the tiny stage. She was capable, too, of softer notes, in the feelings of love and loss associated with Zenocrate; and of anguished disappointment in reflecting on those vast swathes of the earth left unconquered. This was a fine central performance, and it wasn’t Faberes’s fault if the nature of the adaptation and the style of the production prevented her from fully charting Tamburlaine’s narrative and emotional arc from raw Scythian shepherd to a desperate old age and one act of hubris too many.
The remainder of the cast, each playing anything from four to six main roles, were versatile and energetic. Melody Brown made a strong impression as Bajazeth, challenging Tamburlaine in arrogant masculinity and later confined to a cage that might just about have housed a couple of pet rabbits. Susan Hingley matched him as a contemptuous Zabina, while Amanda Maud was particularly effective as Theridamas, one of the few characters to survive from the opening of Part 1 to the concluding scene of Part 2. The two remaining actors, though, were outstanding. Without ever cracking her cut-glass, RP delivery, Fiona Hampton gave strikingly different individualities to Zenocrate and Callapine, and provided engaging support, with light comic touches, in the roles of Meander and Perdicas. Her conflicted Zenocrate was always central, her feelings towards Tamburlaine ambiguous even to herself, particularly through the slaughter he metes out to the inhabitants of Damascus, its pleading virgins and her own ex-fiancé. The touching scene with her three sons at the start of Part 2 was beautifully played, and her death scene was deepened by some thought-provoking details. For example, on her lines, ‘Yet let me kiss my lord before I die, | And let me die with kissing of my lord’ (Part 2, 2.4.69-70), she plastered her mouth with bright red lipstick, in an image subject to many possible interpretations: a desperate attempt to resignify herself as conventionally female, perhaps; or a recognition of the bloodshed in which her relationship with Tamburlaine has implicated her. As the only male in the company, Leo Wan was entertainingly cast, in three of his six roles, as either female or feminised: as Ebea, Zabina’s maid; Mycetes, the inadequate and cowardly Persian king who opens the play with a scene of unanticipated comedy; and Calyphas, the shamefully disappointing son who is happy to live off his father’s conquests while avoiding military action himself. In all three of these roles, Wan showed a lightness of touch and consummate comic timing that stood in effective contrast to the play’s overtly masculine values. Yet he could also switch effortlessly to stronger, more authoritative roles such as the scimitar-wielding King of Arabia.
Yellow Earth promotes itself as a British East Asian company. Ng Choon Ping, in both his programme note and an article in the Oxford Times, placed the production within a set of modern cultural parameters, including the now almost inevitable referencing of Donald Trump, the fracturing of Europe and the conflicts in the Middle East. More interestingly, he offered a challenge to the growing political orthodoxy that condemns so-called cultural appropriation and argues that ‘ethnic, gender, sexual, and economic minorities are most valuable when telling “their own stories” ’. On the contrary, he asserted, ‘We are universal too’. Most strikingly, in his Oxford Times article, he suggested a reconsideration of the currently accepted rationales for cross-gender or colour-blind casting, according his company the same privilege as Marlowe assumed in his recrafting of medieval Middle-Eastern history for an Elizabethan audience. ‘This production,’ he claimed, ‘is neither colour-blind nor gender-blind – we are emphatically ourselves, respectfully and irreverently encountering the other in the text of the play.’ These issues will, of course, continue to be debated. In the meantime, this production, refreshingly, offered a culturally multi-layered approach to the act of making theatre.
 Ng Choon Ping, ‘For Art’s Sake’, Oxford Times, 13 April 2017.
 Ng Choon Ping, Tamburlaine, Yellow Earth Theatre, 2017, programme.