Tamburlaine is the electrifying theatrical study of tyranny and ambition written in 1587 by English Renaissance playwright Christopher Marlowe when he was only 23 years old. Some 430 years later, Yellow Earth Theatre bring this rarely performed, complex drama to the Arcola Theatre using a thrilling new adaptation, live Taiko drumming and a cast of six British East Asian actors. London Calling talked to director Ng Choon Ping to find out more.
London Calling: You have a predominantly female cast and a female actress playing the bloodthirsty lead of Tamburlaine. What made you cast in this way?
Ng Choon Ping: We are used to seeing men in power. Women in power are almost like exotic creatures that attract too much discussion and debate. The fact that the debate exists goes to show how much further we have to go to gain equality. By casting a woman in this powerful role, the exploration of power in a piece of art becomes more interesting, complex, overt, and explicit. Tamburlaine is fuelled by machismo. In our production we ask whether masculinity is a performance or a characteristic.
LC: What made you want to adapt and direct Tamburlaine?
NCP: The play has its origins in Mongolian history, so for Yellow Earth Theatre it’s an interesting proposition to look at a British play inspired by Asian history. It was written before Shakespeare started writing. Marlowe inspired Shakespeare. I was particularly excited to investigate the material Shakespeare drew his initial inspiration from.
LC: Had Marlowe not been murdered, do you think he would have been as great and prolific as Shakespeare?
NCP: It’s fun to imagine. He may have burnt out after his seventh play and gone off to become a tobacco plantation owner in Virginia. Or he could have continued to be an extremely prolific writer. Maybe Shakespeare would have written more plays if he knew Marlowe was his competitor. When we were working on our adaptation we read all of Marlowe’s plays and you can see Marlowe’s mind expanding, honing, editing, and changing itself. Even in his very first play Dido, Queen of Carthage the last scene is better than the first.
LC: What was your adaptation process?
NCP: Originally Tamburlaine was two separate plays, each running at four hours. I have whittled it down to two hours, with the help of dramaturg Stewart Melton. Together we looked at our script again and again to make sure we had taken what we needed from the original material to tell the essential story. The character doubling in our version is not random. Each actor plays a cluster of characters that represent a certain archetype. I have no doubt that this adaptation will be an affront to the Marlowe society. I’m sure they will say, ‘Where is this speech? Where is this scene? Where is this character?’ You can find them on our editing floor.
LC: Composer and percussionist Joji Hirot plays taiko drums live on stage in this production. Why did you choose this type of soundscape for the play?
NCP: I was inspired by the space fights in Battlestar Galactica which are underscored by taiko drums. They get to the heart of the conflict rather than using other superficial sounds. I consider our percussionist Joji the seventh cast member. He is by no means just performing background music or simply providing a beat. He is one of the characters who intrude upon the action of the play, who changes and is changed by the narrative.
LC: Yellow Earth Theatre develops work for British East Asian actors, writers and directors. What can we do to put more BEA artists work on stage?
NCP: I’ve been in this country for around five years. I’m from Singapore originally. There seems to be this tendency to tell minorities, be it racial minorities, gender minorities, economic minorities, to ‘tell your own stories’, ‘we need to hear unheard voices’, ‘we want your stories’. While diversity is very well intentioned, it can be limiting. In our production we will tell whatever story we want to tell. This is our politics.
LC: Will this production challenge our modern perspective on justice?
NCP: I think people come to theatre to see the evils of the world righted and draw comfort from that, but this can encourage a moral myopia. People can come away from a production thinking, ‘I am comforted. Somewhere, someplace at sometime in the world there must be some justice being done so I don’t need to do anything.’ This production will frustrate the audience’s expectation that the villain will be punished and die. I’m trying to build up an expectation of comeuppance that never comes. Ultimately it is in the hands of the audience to work for justice. It is not the role of art to give you a proxy for justice.
Tamburlaine will be performed at the Arcola Theatre from 15 March to 8 April. For more information and tickets, please see the website.