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Review: Tamburlaine (Arcola)

Christopher Marlowe's play is about a shepherd who rises to power and conquers half the world

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

In the 14th century, Tamburlaine – Timur in his own tongue – carved out a vast empire across central Asia. Envisaging himself as the truest successor to Genghis Khan, the Scythian warlord stormed a string of nations to control a landmass that stretched from the Mediterranean to the Himalayas.

It was his ferocity that so fascinated the young Christopher Marlowe. Written in 1587, when Marlowe was still only 23, the two parts of Tamburlaine titillated his audience with skits of violence – captives smashing their own skulls to pieces, fathers snapping their own sons' necks. It was the first big hit of the Elizabethan stage: a gleeful account of grizzly barbarism that builds to a parable of human hubris as Tamburlaine turns to take on the gods.

Director Ng Choon Ping objects to the first part of this, and neglects the second. His production for the British East Asian company Yellow Earth takes aim at Marlowe's image of monstrous oriental savages – but in critiquing the play, it never finds a particular reason for reviving it.

Tamburlaine is an exotic figure. Albert Finney was a conquistador weighed down with golden armour, while Antony Sher became a blood-daubed berserker with DeNiro's mohawk, Rambo's bandana and a hefty Mongol moustache. Ping turns that on its head. Instead of some fetished other, he gives us a Timurid horde that's as English as warm beer.

Dressed in beige jodhpurs and check tweeds, riding crops in hand, Tamburlaine and his allies saunter across central Asia as if strolling through the gardens of Downton Abbey. They discuss military disputes like weather reports, all in the crispest cream tea RP. These are the most anglicised Asians you ever saw, and Ping wastes no time in scoffing at Marlowe's cultural colonialism, even as he cocks a snook at Britain's own imperial history. You thought Tamburlaine was bad? Wait ‘til you clock what came after Francis Drake…

In his eagerness to knock the historicity of Marlowe's Tamburlaine, however, Ping neglects the literary figure. Casting Lourdes Faberes as a Lara Croft-like fantasy figure underlines the maleness of Marlowe's celebrating violence, but flattens a part that goes through phases. There's nothing of the shepherd that rises to power, nor the latter-day Caligula setting himself as an equal to the gods. (Indeed, Ping cuts Tamburlaine's ultimate blasphemy: the burning of a Koran.) Faberes is merely monotonous: an impatient madame with killer legs and a killer blade, but nowhere near the tyrant that "sent millions of souls to hell," let alone "the scourge of the gods" themselves.

The same flatness extends throughout and Ping does too little to guide us through an episodic play and its jagged plot. Tamburlaine's wonky at the best of times, but Ping's elision of its two parts finds no scheme and, just as empires fall when they overreach themselves, his production crumbles under over-ambition. Six actors swap some 25 parts, rarely stepping offstage or changing their appearance, so the whole disintegrates into confusion – a complete mess of multi-role acting. Tamburlaine's judicious Persian wife suddenly seems to lead a Turkish revolt against him – and the poised Fiona Hampton has another two roles besides those.

Anglicising every character ultimately irons out difference in a play concerned with battles between opposing nations, races and faiths. Ironically, then, Ping's attempt to expose the cultural imperialism in Marlowe's writing wilfully obscures the very imperialism he was writing about.

Tamburlaine runs at the Arcola until 8 April before touring to Oxford, Colchester and Birmingham.