Dido, Queen of Carthage I enjoyed, and now he and Lazarus Theatre return to Christopher Marlowe for a heavily edited and adapted version of Edward II. Luke Ward-Wilkinson plays the titular king, who in the opening scene learns of his father’s death and his own accession to the throne, and responds by immediately recalling his banished lover Gaveston (Bradley Frith,) much to the displeasure of his nobles. Whether Gaveston is at court or in exile, he’s a constant distraction to the king, and with conflict at home and abroad his attention is needed for the safety of England. At least that’s their story: Beneath the rhetoric the rebellion led by Mortimer (Jamie O’Neill) looks more like an opportunistic grab at power from a weak and distracted king.
And of course if they’d just let him get on with things he wouldn’t be quite so distracted. The nobles’ rebellion is often interpreted as a homophobic response, and with this production part of the commemorations of the 50th anniversary of the decriminalisation of homosexuality, this is clearly the angle Dukes will take.
Ward-Wilkinson and Frith play Edward and Gaveston as unapologetically in love and physical in front of the court, with some of the nobles physically recoiling at it. But it’s hard to see the rebels as entirely in the wrong, because more than anything else Ward-Wilkinson’s Edward is a petulant child, throwing his power in the court’s faces and going into a tantrum any time he doesn’t get his way. Getting the worst of his scorn while least deserving of it is his queen, Isabella: In a cast otherwise made up entirely of white men Lakesha Cammock cuts a striking figure as the sole woman, and the only cast member sometimes allowed to go offstage, all the men having to lurk menacingly at the sidelines.
Cammock really gets to hit home that Isabella genuinely loves Edward and is resistant to turning on him until pushed to the extreme. Her relationship with Mortimer is a self-fulfilling prophecy, Edward repeatedly accusing her of having an affair with his rival until she finally sides with him (although in this version there’s no sign of their relationship ever actually becoming physical.) Dukes’ streamlined edit zones in on the moments of conflict, making for a hugely energetic evening (Ward-Wilkinson is sweating buckets within minutes, although to be fair he does have some big coats to wear.) On the downside much subtlety and variety are sacrificed – at times this is a relentlessly angry show, which becomes quite exhausting to watch.
Among the cuts to the text, Dukes gets rid of the entire plot where, after Gaveston’s death, Edward immediately falls for a new favourite. It does make the relationship with Gaveston seem more like true love if Edward doesn’t replace him quite so readily, but ironically I think the argument about the nobles’ homophobia loses something with it gone. After all, they never outright say they have a problem with Edward taking a male lover, their repeated assertion is that they dislike the choice of Gaveston because he’s a commoner. So when the king next hooks up with a nobleman’s son and they promptly despise and murder him too, it makes their real objection much harder to hide.
On a traverse stage (perhaps a bit too small to contain the production’s ambition – blocking occasionally becomes an issue,) Sorcha Corcoran’s design is modern-dress with the odd avant-garde touch. For the play’s notoriously grisly conclusion, the cast strip to their underwear and wear rubber masks, making Edward’s assassination look like a grotesque sex party, eventually leaving him naked and showered in blood. (At tonight’s performance things nearly took a nasty turn for real, when one side of the trestle table he was laying on collapsed, sending Ward-Wilkinson sliding head-first to the floor, naked in the foetal position; everyone carried on regardless, and fortunately though he looked a bit shaken up he didn’t seem badly hurt at the curtain call.) It all makes for a striking, and at times very effective Edward II, although I would have liked a bit more light and shade, and perhaps some space for the production to breathe.
Edward II by Christopher Marlowe is booking until the 9th of September at the Tristan Bates Theatre.
Running time: 1 hour 35 minutes straight through.