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Review: Tamburlaine @ Old Rep Theatre, Birmingham


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Tamburlaine, Yellow Earth’s adaptation of Christopher Marlowe’s play, is the story of a Scythian shepherd who, through ambition and bloodshed, follows the warpath of Genghis Khan as he carves out an empire.

With reference to the current political climate (from Donald Trump to Middle Eastern conflict) in their booklet, Yellow Earth did not have to stretch too far to make their historic parallels of power and instability known.

Indeed, the play follows the theme of Renaissance Humanism, which believed in the power and potential within human beings. Tamburlaine’s ambitions are fuelled by this belief as he conquers kings and becomes the “scourge of God” – he attempts to disillusion religious characters and proclaims the weakness of divine power that refuses to materialise and face him.

This aggressive iconoclasm is testament to Tamburlaine’s persona – he is the personification of hyper-masculinity and seeks to dominate through violence. This is subtly visualised in the jockey costume style (design by Moi Tran), as characters are armed with riding-crops to control through force. Tamburlaine even dehumanises his prisoners by disturbingly ‘riding’ them across the stage before promising the honour of pulling his chariot.

In terms of technicalities, Yellow Earth performed with an East Asian cast on a minimalistic proscenium stage. Actors had chairs to sit on between scenes, a cyclorama was used for projections, and an assembly of Taiko drums and gongs (played by Joji Hirota) occupied the front corner.

The style of acting had numerous Brechtian elements with actors making direct address to the audience (who were soldiers in Tamburlaine’s army), having conversations with Joji on the intensity of the drumming, and performing within rather archetypical roles of cowardly kings, bloodthirsty warriors, and proud emperors.

Fourth-wall-breaking contributes to Brecht’s v-effect, which is used to distance the audience from the immersion of the play, reminding them that the performance is just a performance. Watching actors play multiple roles and change characters on stage was the main contributor to this effect, but the addition of comedic moments, such as a few slapstick fight scenes and witty exchanges, aided in releasing the tension of such a political charged narrative.

The main advantage or use of Brechtian theatre is to relay a didactic message which, unfortunately, was obscured in this adaptation. Whilst Tamburlaine did open up numerous questions, exploring some of the proclaims of their flyer: “What makes a king? What makes a father? What makes a man?”, it failed to close with one clear-cut message. This may have been the intention as even now I question whether Tamburlaine was a character to be admired or pitied. He may have destroyed lives in pursuit of his ambition but he still achieved the conquest he set out for. Yet at what personal cost?

Act two felt more like a slow-burning existential crisis as Tamburlaine continued to lose loved ones as he chased after his own titles, stating, “I must apply myself to fit those terms.” Maybe Tamburlaine even forgot himself on his long journey but it will be a long time yet before I forget him.

Tamburlaine  played at the The Old Rep Theatre, Birmingham on Friday 21 April 2017

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