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Review: Edward II

Edward II: Turbocharged!


One of the greatest benefits of subsidised theatre, and there are many, is that companies like the National Theatre are able to take the kind of risks that commercial producers in the West End simply cannot entertain. A case in point is their new, adrenalin-charged staging of Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II, which they have entrusted to director Joe Hill-Gibbins. While his concept and direction sometimes teeter perilously close to the edge, and on occasion threaten to descend over the precipice into confusion and farce, he creates the kind of edgy, challenging theatre that despite having its detractors (some of the critics in the dailies have been unduly harsh in their outright rejection of his ideas) is never dull. Indeed he and his designers Lizzie Clachan (sets) and Alex Lowde (costumes) have superbly re-imagined Marlowe’s tragic sixteenth century play for a modern day audience.

Marlowe’s play details the reign of Edward II (1307-1327) whom, because of his love for Piers Gaveston, divides the country and estranges his wife, whilst his downfall is particularly grisly and involves a red-hot poker! Might this be the first ‘gay play’ ever written? Very possibly, but in Marlowe’s original one of the main reasons why the Barons entreat the King to banish Gaveston is not based on his sexuality but the fact that he is lowly of birth, something that is eclipsed in this staging.

Dressing half the cast in medieval costumes, and the other half in modern attire jars, but that’s the point. Edward II wears his gold lamé robes with aplomb, whilst Gaveston radiates dangerous sexual allure, squeezed into a pair of jeans which leave little to the imagination. Their long, lingering snog which takes place in front of the Barons and the Queen creates a wonderful theatrical frisson, but it’s apparent from the start that their love affair is doomed, and the unravelling of their relationship is deftly handled by the director.

What makes the entire staging so remarkable is the audacity with which Hill-Gibbons fuses old and new. Two video screens adorn either side of the stage. When the Barons and Queen disappear to plot the King’s downfall, we’re only privy to what they say via a live video feed – it’s alienating, yet at the same time draws the audience into their secretive world and makes us all voyeurs at the same time. Similarly in the second act, as Edward is being led away captive, a camera follows him on his sad, dejected journey across the stage – here the broken expression on John Heffernan’s face is magnified, and becomes almost too painful to watch.

All the acting is superb. Heffernan is at turns regal, yet vulnerable – his delivery of Marlowe’s text is a pleasure in itself, and he’s ably partnered by Kyle Soller’s brash American Gaveston. As Edward’s Queen, Vanessa Kirby is all pent-up anger and with a glass of bubbly permanently in her hand wouldn’t look out of place in Ab Fab.

This production is definitely not for the purists, but for me Hill-Gibbins has delivered a gutsy, up-to-the-minute staging that pulls no punches, takes no prisoners, and keeps you on the edge of your seat from beginning to end.

GT gives this a: 3/5

Words Keith McDonnell

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