Six actors surround a bare (bar a white wall backdrop) stage. A tour de force of drums announces the commencement of this historical epic and the audience is transported back to fourteenth-century Persia. Tamburlaine tells the story of a shepherd-turned-conqueror whose Empire stretched across much of Europe and Asia. It is estimated that Tamburlaine's campaign led to the death of 5% of the global population and the audience watches his rise and bloody rule.
Ng Choon Ping's adaption of Christopher Marlowe is a stripped-down version, condensing the ten-act, two-part epic into a brisk two-hour production. Marlowe views the tyrannical Tamburlaine as a flawed hero, one to be admired as much as feared, and here there are echoes of our current populist leaders. He is a braggart, supremely confident, and fuelled by a rage against a failed system. The production doesn't dwell too much on the modern similarities, instead moving at a fierce pace from one conquest to the next. It is only in the final moments, as the end for Tamburlaine nears, that the play slows, to contemplate the legacy this tyrant will have earned.
A magnetic cast, led by the domineering presence of Lourdes Faberes as Tamburlaine, take on multiple parts and are each given moments to shine. Tamburlaine is packed with characters and yet the cast make it easy to follow who they are, even with minimal costume changes. In particular I enjoyed the gender-swapping of the cast, with the weaker characters played by Leo Wan, the production's sole male actor. It is also worth noting that all of the six actors are BEA (British East Asian). It should not be such an anomaly for six BEA actors to share the stage, but such is the state of the UK theatre scene that it feels more comfortable in whitewashing East Asian stories than increasing the presence of BEA actors. Not only do Yellow Earth seek to correct this but they have also crafted a fine take on a piece of classical theatre in the process.
The main problem with condensing such a mammoth duo of plays into a manageable evening of theatre is that it doesn't leave much room for the smaller details of the original text. As an audience, we never truly empathise with Tamburlaine or those around him. But this is as much a flaw in Marlowe's text than it is of this production. Furthermore the production lacks the necessary violence to enthral the audience, with only one death near the end really impacting, due to its unexpected suddenness.
On a technical level the production is exemplary. Stewart Melton's costumes are fabulous, immediately bringing a power to the gender-swapped roles through signalling their attire. The projected animations are useful and engaging, allowing a breadth that would be unexpected given the production's stripped-back nature. Finally, the music from Jojo Hirota threatens to steal the show, with his fantastic drumming giving the production a wonderfully cinematic quality.
Yellow Earth have produced a fascinating take on Tamburlaine, one that is stripped-back, stylish and purposeful. The BEA cast were fantastic and handled the huge task of the ten-act epic with gusto. (Even if by the end I was somewhat exhausted by Tamburlaine's journey.)