October 9, 2011, by Peter Kirwan

Edward II @ Manchester Royal Exchange

Writing about web page http://www.royalexchange.org.uk/event.aspx?id=435

It’s rare to see a history play specifically relocated in time. While it’s common to see a production that incorporates elements of costume and resonance drawn from across the ages, in order to suggest that the issues presented transcend their historical setting, few directors are prepared to fix a specific new date for a play that depends so heavily on "real" figures who belong to a fixed time. For that reason, it was a pleasure to see Toby Frow’s new production of Marlowe’s English history set firmly in the 1950s. The sheer audacity of this decision was realised in the addition of a full-scale coronation scene reproducing Elizabeth II’s, complete with replicas of the Westminster Abbey thrones, robes and the British crown. As the Archbishop of Canterbury proclaimed Edward "King of Great Britain and Northern Ireland" (!), Gaveston entered in his robes, approached the throne, and then kissed the throned king passionately. The combination of pomp and travesty, all underscored by the climactic strains of "Zadok the Priest", made clear just what was at stake in Edward’s behaviour.

As ever, this Edward II was a story of two halves: the first the rise and downfall of Piers Gaveston (Samuel Collings), the second the battle for the throne between the parties of Edward (Chris New) and Mortimer (Jolyon Coy). The success of the production was in not collapsing following Gaveston’s demise. Collings was a compelling presence, bred in a seedy jazz underworld. A fantastic four-piece band (including Richard Mark’s Baldock on trumpet) entertained a club of Gaveston’s companions, smoking and dancing. The play began as a mysterious man in white suit, fedora and tinted glasses, carrying an umbrella and case, entered this scene and handed Gaveston a letter before leaving. Gaveston roared in triumph and delivered his opening soliloquy to his fellows, kissing Spencer and promising glory for all.

Gaveston, wearing black eye make-up and dressed like James Dean, was a deliberately provocative presence. He lounged on couches, kissed the king publicly (even in front of Isabella), swaggered as he insulted the earls and skipped merrily about the stage. He curled up topless with Edward to watch a movie, clapped his hands with glee as Edward granted him his honours. His energy enthused New’s Edward with the same. Edward’s natural demeanour was slightly depressive, with a tendency to self-pity and plaintive noises. One of the production’s most affecting moments came as he quietly replied to Mortimer "Because he loves me more than all the world"; and when the two were together onstage, Edward’s confidence and dynamism increased correspondingly. Despite Edward’s poor decisions, and Gaveston’s clear disdain for the trappings of court, there was something genuine in their shared affection.

The nobles wore grey suits and perpetual scowls as they lined up against Edward. The wars of the first scene were imagined as a series of back-alley encounters, aggressive London bobbies and overheard radio reports, the conflict imagined as relatively local rather than involving the whole populace. These were possibly the moments at which the setting struggled most against text, but what we had instead was a conflict driven by clear personalities rather than by faceless nobles. Jonathan Keeble’s enormous Lancaster dominated, refusing to be intimidated and softening in surprise only when Edward hugged him unexpectedly. The older Mortimer and Warwick (David Collings and Hugh Simon) were more politic, and the actors reappeared later as the mildly comic and sadistic Matrevis and Gurney. Coy’s Young Mortimer was the most interesting presence, however. Moustachioed and antisocial, he hovered at the back of the groups and only declared himself openly in Isabella’s presence at first, before rising to prominence in the second half. His cold machinations were underpinned by an almost childish sense of resentment and hatred of Edward, and his strait-laced performance contrasted nicely with Gaveston.

Mortimer was clearly set up as the primary antagonist, while Emma Cunniffe’s Isabella was granted a little more sympathy. Throughout the first half she pleaded innocence against Edward’s accusations of treachery, and her choice to begin an affair with Mortimer was explicitly set up as a result of these constant accusations and her shunning from Edward’s side. Even once openly in opposition to Edward, her primary motivation was the care of her son, and her attempts to protect him governed her behaviour, despite her simultaneous attempts to please her lover. As such, her rejection by her son at the play’s conclusion was a final blow, and she screamed for death as she was led offstage.

The play’s second half was framed around an extraordinary sequence in the tower. From his first appearance in prison, New remained on stage for the rest of the play, his imprisoned body remaining centre-stage while events elsewhere happened around him. Dressed in simple white shirt and trousers, he was already in distress when asked to resign the crown. This was done in extreme reluctance, and Edward attempted to take it back, first by fashioning the document into a paper crown which he donned and danced in, and then by physically resisting his guards as they stripped him of the document and ran out with it. Later, Edward was seen being subjected to excruciating torture, screaming as jailors filled the cell with siren noises and threw buckets of water over him. Matrevis and Gurney made him listen to the coronation of his son and then lifted a flagstone on the stage into which Edward was pushed, standing upright in what we were informed was the castle’s sewer. A torrent of water fell from above, drenching the king, who was left standing cold and shivering for the remainder of the act.

Then the stranger of the opening scene reappeared, now played by Samuel Collings, and was revealed to be Lightborn. This methodical, calculated sociopath took his instructions from Mortimer with a professional but pleasured air, happily informing the noble of his previous methods and politely refusing to divulge his new "tricks". Entering the prison, he dismissed Matrevis and Gurney with disdain and entered into a disquieting relationship with his victim: comforting him with news of Isabella, opening his ever-present case to reveal a gramophone on which he played soothing music and allowing him to sit. As the scene cut back to Mortimer’s court, Lightborn sat with Edward, cradling his head and allowing the king to rest. The doubling of Gaveston and Lightborn was particularly effective in this regard, recasting their previous relationship in a twisted manner. After a time, from nowhere, Lightborn suddenly switched. He spun the king round and plunged him head first into the sewer. Then he was handed his red hot poker and sat astride the flailing king, plunging the poker up through his body. The king was left limp, head in the pit and defiled body lying across the stage, as Lightborn sat there panting. They remained in this position as the young Edward ordered the death of Mortimer and, as he received his head, Lightborn stood, tidied himself up, picked up his tools and walked calmly out.

The choice to overlay these sequences was the production’s greatest strength, never allowing us to forget what was at stake as the king remained alive. The most significant disappointment was that the child actor playing Prince Edward had clearly had very little rehearsal. While he knew the lines and his blocking, his voice barely carried across the space and there was no expression. Prince Edward is one of the juiciest boy roles in the early modern drama, and his claiming of his own sovereignty a powerful conclusion to the play. If a production of Edward II is going to employ a child actor, it needs to work hard to fulfil the dramatic potential of the character, and this one failed badly. It’s not the actor’s fault, but it did make for an extremely damp end to the play after such a strong build-up.

There were other complaints. The Caribbean and French accents used by Spencer and Baldock respectively were almost unintelligible, and the choice to rake the stage despite it being in-the-round, combined with the large number of bodies often onstage, obscured too much action in the early scenes. However, the invention and verve of the production carried it regardless. From Isabella announcing her invasion via the BBC to the station arrivals room into which Gaveston returned, the rich detail of the setting gave a personal yet continually loaded commentary on the political action. And at the heart of it, the masochistic tendencies of a man willing to accept any amount of pain in return for intimacy.

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