“Edward II” by Christopher Marlowe

at the Olivier Theatre, Wednesday 4th September 2013

Admittedly, the first twenty-odd minutes of Joe Hill-Gibbins’ production of Edward II come across as a little wobbly. The actors seem to be over-indulging, there’s a jumble of styles and, as barons trudge in and out of a flimsy room followed by video cameras, it feels a little like a sub-par Fraulein Julie. But then, after this mad, inconsistent set-up, there’s a stroke of genius. A scene between Spenser (Nathaniel Martello-White) and Baldock (Ben Addis) is relayed via projections from the roof of the National Theatre. Dressed in anachronistic garb, flanked by soldiers and framed by London’s twilight skyline, they discuss whether or not they’re going to back John Heffernan’s mawkish King Edward before heading to the stage, Marlowe’s text interspersed with modern idiom. At this point, it all becomes far clearer. Hill-Gibbins production is one which focusses on the various contrasts and oppositions in Marlowe’s play: the first half clashes with the second; the enclosed space on stage clashes with that which is open; Edward’s relationship with Isabella clashes with his love for Gaveston; and so on. It’s a layered, invigorating piece chock-a-block with symbolism, and it’s one of the most exciting things I’ve seen in the Olivier for a long time.

What we get, then, isn’t the kind of doctored version of history we are used to but an account which, like reality, is messy and slippery. Take as an example this image, which pretty much opens the play:

Fairly ‘traditional’, right? Sure, there’s a school blazer and some high heels, but to all intents and purposes you could pretty much be looking at a Nunn-era RSC History play. That curtain at the back, however, ascends to reveal a miniature film set, its haphazard fittings on show and the lights (James Farncombe) above glaring down in full view, splitting the stage in two; the realm in front in Edward’s, where he can court Gaveston (Kyle Soller) and command armies, but behind him there are those conspiring against him. A similar cleft occurs in the second half, the detritus from the first half there being used as a towering barricade, placing the dominance of Mortimer (Kobna Holdbrook-Smith) and Isabella (Vanessa Kirby) above the bewildered, shivering Edward beneath, his blinking face magnified on the screens. Beyond the façade of text-book history, something always lurks which is far more interesting.

If there is a central message to this production, it’s that all power deteriorates. Edward loses control due to his love of Gaveston, Mortimer takes his eye off the ball as Prince Edward steps up to become king and the barons’ monopoly on the political situation cannot last for long. The shifts in the height and nature of Lizzie Clachan’s sets are a physical embodiment of this, each incarnation being temporary and open to destruction. There’s also something synthetic about it, with the harsh yellow carpet and school chairs giving no pretence of realism, suggesting those with titles are only playing at leadership rather than enacting it proper. Doubling by various cast members accentuates this idea, as faces and voices come back to haunt and play with those in the present tense.

Symbols also abound throughout. Water, fire and light all play a key role, kicking off a scene or ending it in a way which cleanses or scorches, whilst a single balloon finds a trajectory throughout as a reminder of forgotten youth. In the second half especially, silence also acts as symbol, its din ringing out where once there was chaos and screaming. Gary Yershon’s discordant, cyclical music features a central motif which occurs again and again.

Hill-Gibbins has cut the text down so that Marlowe’s expansive cast list contains only the most important players (though I do find the casting of a handful of so-called ‘Dogs’, who do little except bolster numbers and move scenery in elaborate helments, a tad problematic). Lurking behind everything is Kirby’s Queen, just as power-crazed as the men around her and knowing exactly which buttons to push to get her own way, acting in direct opposition to Soller’s languid, easy-going Gaveston. Stuck in the middle of it all are Kirsty Bushell’s dynamic York and Bettrys Jones’ almost patomimic Prince Edward, who holds far more clout than we expect. Heffernan’s King finds extraordinary extremes of emotion, speaking Marlowe’s text with a lightness of touch without losing its raw power. Though the cast features a diverse array of performance styles and seem often to utterly fail to speak truth to one another, they undoubtedly inhabit the same world. This crazy, mixed-up environment pulls in those who have been left behind by other realms of reality.

And it seems they are all given complete freedom with the text, as long as it makes sense to this character in this world, meaning it never feels declamatory or stolid. One of my favourite moments comes when the ‘bloody’ in “That bloody man” takes on a far more contemporary meaning, but makes complete sense in the context. Marlowe’s often problematic text thus comes alive and feels invested in, as if the ensemble have ownership of it.

True, this production sometimes lacks precision and there are occasions when the stage feels too vast to fill, but the vibrancy and inventiveness with which it is staged uncover new ideas and make for a visual treat. In many ways, it is entirely apt for a piece penned by Marlowe – often seen as the maverick to Shakespeare’s boot-licker – to feel so anarchic and playful, demonstrating the fallibility of power and the uncertainty of history. There’s never a dull moment, and there are images which become seared on your psyche, revisiting you like the ghosts of Hill-Gibbins’ staging. This is an Edward II for a generation which doesn’t believe in hard-and-fast fact or the sanctity of text, and comes with all the elaborate complexity of our era.

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