Far less frequently performed than Doctor Faustus, Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II deserves to be better known. A big influence on Shakespeare’s Richard II, it tells the story of a king who can inspire great devotion but whose personal weaknesses threaten the stability of the nation and lead to his downfall. Although it does not quite attain the heights of Shakespeare’s historical tragedy, Marlowe’s play is nonetheless rich in poetry and drama.
The play focuses on Edward’s predilection for male favourites at court, first Gaveston and then later Spencer, which (not surprisingly) upsets his wife the Queen Isabella and angers the nobility, especially Mortimer thus Edward’s undisguised fixation creates both domestic and political disharmony. Although Marlowe’s Edward (like the playwright himself) has become a gay icon, especially in Derek Jarman’s polemical film version, it is clear that the court’s disapproval of his relatively low-born favourites is as much based on class grounds as on homophobia.
This streamlined, modern-dress production by Michael Oakley (winner of this year’s JMK Award, given annually to promising young theatre directors in memory of James Menzies-Kitchin) is admirably assured and fast-paced but loses some of the original context and texture. Staged in one of the BAC’s studio spaces, with a minimalist design by Mark Friend suggesting a marble-laid palace hall furnished with just a throne, the show is stronger in the more intimate scenes than the more public set pieces.
The opening works well, when the newly crowned Edward and Isabella, a glamorous, apparently model couple, enter before an adulatory court to the sound of paparazzi cameras, only to be interrupted by the return of the exiled Gaveston his passionate embrace with the king stuns everyone else into frozen silence. Edward’s refusal to compromise on his relationship with his lover provokes a power struggle but there is little sense of a nation’s fate being in the balance we are more aware of one man’s self-propelled downward spiral.
Oakley has not overdone the homoerotic aspects of the play even if the sexed-up rock soundtrack seems a bit unnecessary but does communicate a strong sense of subversive sexuality as well as genuine emotional force. The production also possesses an interesting ambivalence as our responses to the protagonists change during the course of the evening: at the start we feel Edward’s self-indulgence is immature and reckless but later we are appalled by his enemies’ ruthless pursuit of power. The scene where Edward is horribly killed with a red-hot poker in Berkeley Castle (so reminiscent of Richard II’s murder in Pomfret Castle) is brilliantly done, with only flickering torches pin-pricking the pitch darkness of this evil deed.
The cast speak the blank verse with confidence, generating a real dramatic urgency. Though not achieving full tragic stature, Philip Cumbus gives a strong performance as the weak Edward who puts personal loyalty above regal responsibility – finding much pathos in his descent from playboy monarch to deposed victim. Tom Robertson lends Gaveston a sulky arrogance and provocative insouciance, while convincing us of his love for Edward, while Tom Stuart’s gentler Young Spencer conveys a steadfast faithfulness.
Kate Sissons struggles with the thin characterization of Isabella, who turns from betrayed wife willing to do anything to please her husband to cynical vamp, without any psychological plausibility. Her affair with Mortimer is patchily outlined but Bill Ward is splendidly bullish as the soldier turned politician, whose patriotic motives are corrupted once he tastes true power as Regent to the young Edward III though as one of Marlowe’s overreachers his time at the top is destined to be short-lived.