This outlandish, rollicking production of Marlowe’s Edward II starts normally enough with Edward II (John Hefferman) sitting on a throne centre stage in a cloth-of-gold coronation that has the usual ahistorical-but-vaguely-old-timey appearance that seems to be now the standard for Shakespeare productions in London. But those who know their Marlowe may recall that the play does not begin this way and its seeming decorum merely emphasises the bizarre turn the production takes with the appearance of his lover Gaveston (Kyle Soller) wearing a leather jacket and a chain. The closest ancestor to this production’s slick, irreverent approach is probably Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, but even that comparison does not do justice to its manic turmoil. Joe Hill-Gibbins uses the well-worn yet effective approach of echoing the growing instability of the realm with an increasingly chaotic staging.
The scheming of the peers and Queen Isabella (Vanessa Kirby) is concealed from the audience by a walled room. We only see them thanks to footage from handheld cameras projected onto screens beside the stage, a claustrophobic technique that recalls fly-on-the wall documentaries.Their sophistication is contrasted effectively with the immaturity of the King and Gaveston. The politically disastrous step of their assault on Bishop of Coventry is depicted as less the actions of a tyrannical King and his favourite, and more the folly of two high-spirited young boys who know not what they do. It is clear from the start that they do not stand a chance against the manipulative Queen Isabella.
It is however in her depiction that the director (Joe Hill-Gibbins) commits the greatest error of this production. He has reduced the character to a comic, chain-smoking, wine-swilling ‘bad mother’ figure. Marlowe’s play is compelling partly thanks to the dual sympathies one initially has for the repeatedly rejected wife and the love and suffering of the gay lovers. But here her protestations that she loves Edward II and is injured by his blatant infidelities are (deliberately) unconvincing in the extreme, thus depriving her of convincing motivations for her ensuing cruelty to her hubsand. Vanessa Kirby has great stage presence and carries this depiction off with assured comic aplomb, but it is a great shame that as a result she has had to act against the script. It is puzzling why Hill-Gibbins has decided to reduce the complexity of her character and thus destroy that compelling mirroring of the King’s political downfall and rise in moral dignity, with the Queen’s political rise and attendant moral downfall.
The depiction of the King and Gaveston, however are a triumph. Kyle Soller is a charismatic and insolent Gaveston, whose opportunistic glee does not undermine the way his eyes shine with love whenever he looks at the King. (One can see why the King chooses the similarly cocky Hugh Spencer, played by the excellent Nathaniel Martello-White, as his favourite after Gaveston.) John Hefferman as the King, too, is tragically convincing as a man who forgets his position, his political wisdom and his instinct for self-preservation due to his overwhelming passion. It is a testament to Hefferman’s skill that he manages to show that, as the King’s fortunes fall, he both grows in wisdom and dignity yet never regrets the disastrous love that caused his sorrows.
This production has many faults; apart from the simplification of the Queen’s character, the battle scenes are ludicrous, there is an unfortunate gimmick in the casting, and it is a shame that a ridiculous bright-red school uniform veils the powerful performance of Bettrys Jones as the young Prince Edward. Nevertheless, for all its flaws, this unusual production not only boasts very strong performances, it also achieves the great distinction of never, ever being dull.