The UK Prime Minister, David Cameron, recently learned a very important lesson about power. Like many kings and politicians before him, he found that power only means anything if one has the support of others with less important titles and roles. Playwright Christopher Marlowe understood this all too clearly, even as long ago as the early 1590s when he wrote this play.
We first meet Edward II at his grand coronation. Dressed in a lavish, golden coat stretching down to the floor he promises to protect the rights of the people, and the barons in particular, but his mind is preoccupied with another matter. Most important to him is to manage the return of his favourite, Piers Gaveston, from exile. Edward is obsessed by the impishly mischievous courtier with whom he is having rather more than a mere king-subject relationship. When Edward does manage to get Gaveston back he lavishes titles on him, much to the chagrin of the powerful barons who hate him and one more force Edward to exile Gaveston. The King is bereft and heart-broken. Edward's queen, Isabella, the sister of the King of France, hates Gaveston too, but persuades the barons to allow him back to England partly to regain favour with her husband, but also with the intention of removing the king's lover more permanently from the court. Ultimately, this situation leads to civil strife and chaos.
Joe Hill-Gibbins's powerfully inventive production is intentionally timeless and, in a very real sense, is a collection of memories, or perhaps a collective memory. It reminded me of a cafe I used to frequent where the décor comprised an enormous collection of bric-a-brac and objects from various cultures, times, and junk shops. By the time we get to the second half of this play, various items of furniture, art, cloth, vases and other bits and pieces are piled-up in the middle of the stage, like a dragon's hoard which is up-for-grabs. And it is. Moreover, Alex Lowde's costumes range from a child's school uniform for the young Prince Edward to a glamorous and provocative glitzy-red, figure-hugging dress worn by the queen. But the costumes are not all modern. There's plenty of armour on display, and some of the soldiers wear mediaeval or fantasy-style helmets in the shape of ram's heads and the like. To further accentuate the timelessness of the subject, the king signs what looks like an archaic document with a ballpoint pen. Massive titles flash-up onto two enormous screens to cue us in to the complex diversions in the story, and video is used to show scenes being enacted on stage, though often out of our direct line of sight.
Brilliantly directed, this is a cast of real quality and class who together concoct a riveting evening's theatre. John Heffernan's wonderfully-played King Edward is an enormously vulnerable character. Slightly-built and rather frail, he is a child-like character who imagines that as King he can do whatever he pleases, including snogging his gay lover in front of his wife and the barons and then asking for their salutations. Kyle Soller's waggish Gaveston is more courageous, less compliant than Edward, and is prepared to stand-up to the antagonistic barons but can make little impression without the king's backing. There's terrific support from Kobna Holdbrook-Smith as Mortimer the younger, Vanessa Kirby as Queen Isabella, and Bettrys Jones proves hugely convincing as the young Prince Edward.
Early on in the play, Edward's sister (Kisty Bushell) predicts that Gaveston will “be the ruin of the realm”. And so it turns out to be. Marlowe's message was more prophetic in real-life when half a century after it was written Charles I met his demise after being beaten by the Parliamentarians in the English Civil War. This brave and highly inventive production of 'Edward II' not only puts Marlowe's message into accessible and understandable form, but demonstrates its widespread applicability to recent events throughout the world.
"It pains me to write so dismissively because Hill-Gibbins is a young director I have previously greatly admired. And amid all the flashy tricks there are some good things here...One leaves the theatre fervently wishing that Hill-Gibbins had trusted Marlowe’s flawed, repetitive but often magnificent play more, and his own bright ideas a good deal less. "
Charles Spencer for The Daily Telegraph
"For all the jolts of explosive drama and energetic physicality, this is a frustrating interpretation. It’s a show of great technical complexity and bubbles with ideas, yet didn’t get under my skin."
Henry Hitchings for The Evening Standard
"Alas, the only thing murdered in Joe Hill-Gibbins’s puerile, inept production is the play itself."
Quentin Letts for The Daily Mail
External links to full reviews from popular press