September 9, 2013, by Peter Kirwan

Edward II (National) @ The Olivier, National Theatre

Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II is an obvious companion piece to Shakespeare’s Richard II, both dealing with the deposition of a king arguably more preoccupied with his friends and sycophants than with his kingdom, and the two have been performed together frequently (including most famously with Ian McKellen in the dual leads, making explicit the homosexual undertones that pervade both plays). While I’ve reviewed the play twice before, at Warwick and Manchester, the National’s major new production had a unique MVP in the wonderful John Heffernan, who I’ve been following for several years in roles such as Oswald and the Sexton of Much Ado, and who excelled as Richard II two years ago at the Tobacco Factory. Bringing his experience in that role to this, Heffernan grounded an inventive, if sometimes messy, new take on Marlowe’s play.

Drawing on the National’s recent interest in productions that combine multimedia with live performance, director Joe Hill-Gibbins deployed two screens either side of the stage, allowing for a range of environments to be created. At its best, this allowed for the illusion of depth to what can potentially be a thin political story. The nobles disappeared into an enclosed structure that dominated the centre of the Olivier stage in order to plot, and hand-held cameras (wielded by soldiers wearing helmets shaped like dogs and stags) captured their scheming in shaky, grainy close-up while Edward and Gaveston toyed with one another alone on the main stage. The distinction between public and private was used to gesture toward the seediness of the debauched parties thrown by Spencer, the intimacy of Mortimer and Isabella’s whisperings, and the loneliness of Edward’s slow walk of disgrace back and forth across the upstage area (reminiscent of nothing so much as Jesus Christ Superstar).

The conceit was inconsistently used, however. Sometimes it created easy laughs, such as a sideways glance at the bewildered face of Young Edward (Bettrys Jones) or a long section pre-recorded on the roof of the National overlooking the Thames between Nathaniel Martello-White’s Spencer and Ben Addis’s Baldock, including a speeded-up descent from the roof to the theatre. Spencer lapsed frequently into modern idioms in an amusing portrait of the character as a street-smart raver, while Addis’s take on Baldock saw him as a scholar comically trying to follow Spencer’s lead by introducing himself with flamboyant bows and forced charm. Nonetheless, while the close-up cameras allowed an intimacy with these characters that was followed through to the tight focus on their sweating and bleeding faces as they faced execution, it began to feel as if the use of the cameras was being forced rather than being organic to the production’s purposes, switching from the emotive cameras to captions that announced the coming scene in a move reminiscent of Brecht’s placards.

Quite what these purposes were was not always apparent. A grand opening pageant saw Edward crowned following a backwards video montage through English monarchs and a chorus of ‘God Save the Queen’, but then was immediately punctured by the sound of a single pair of hands clapping from the back of the stalls. The opening third was dominated by Kyle Soller’s Gaveston, who wandered through the audience, borrowed theatre programmes, leaned from the balcony and kissed Edward passionately in front of the sickened nobles. A US accent emphasised his otherness (a Wallis Simpson reference seemed intended), and his relationship with Heffernan’s King gave the play an emotional heart, with Heffernan wailing for his lost love and the confident Gaveston speaking gently to Edward, giving him strength. Yet the easy slip into representations of debauchery (orgies, three-way kisses etc.) carried none of the political weight of, say, Derek Jarman’s seminal film of the play, and any comment on homophobia died with Gaveston.

More effective was the production’s careful individualisation of every character, including the otherwise anonymous nobles. Penny Layden was a compelling Pembroke, played as female and channelling Joan of Arc, though it was unclear whether the part had been cast as female precisely for the character’s ultimate compassion towards Gaveston. Alex Beckett had marvellous hair and a comic raucous passion as Lancaster, while Matthew Pidgeon’s surly Warwick muttered unhappily and glowered at the King. Paul Bentall’s Mortimer was an older, kilted soldier, delighted to be given command of the wars when reconciled with Edward, and even the two priests, David Sibley’s Canterbury and Stephen Wilson’s Coventry, made for impassioned villains (Gaveston’s early deflocking of the flummoxed bishop was a highlight of Edward’s debased period). The barons worked well as a group, building a comradeship that made the conflict between Warwick and Pembroke over Gaveston the more richly earned.

The real strengths were in the royal family, though. Kirsty Bushell’s Kent was a powerful presence, suited and marching around the stage (often backwards) in impossibly high heels. While the nobles schemed offstage and Edward and Gaveston toyed with one another, it was Kent who looked after the palace, held Prince Edward close to her and and kept her brother in order. When she switched to armour, she fought alongside the nobles and helped them physically topple the central structure, destroying the set and leaving Edward’s party (including the onstage pianist) nowhere to hide. Yet in her return to her brother it was her emotional arc that came closest to driving the second half, first defying the increasingly arrogant Young Mortimer and then finally dragged screaming away, as Prince Edward wept.

The double-act of Kobna Holdbrook-Smith’s Young Mortimer and Vanessa Kirby’s Isabella was perhaps the most interesting of the production. Isabella wore red dress and carried a bottle of champagne like a lifeline, beckoning to her son (dressed in red school blazer, cap and shorts) to bring her fags and top-ups. This bored yummy mummy, constantly half-cut as a way of dealing with her husband’s lack of interest in her, was flattered by the attention shown her by the younger Mortimer, and drew confidence from holding court in the back rooms accompanied by the barons and roving cameras. As Edward, Spencer and Baldock were finally cornered, she and Mortimer began kissing passionately, publicly, at the back of the stage.

The second half capitalised on the relationship between her and Young Mortimer by placing them both atop a huge structure, cobbled-together from the previous half’s debris in a pastiche of Edward’s former glory. Usurping King and Queen stood aloft and protected, causing Prince Edward to have to choose between the ground level with his uncle and the platform with his mother. Mortimer had been sulky in the first half, the most reticent noble in the reconciliation and growling angrily with the others as they sarcastically saluted Gaveston. Atop the platform, Mortimer revelled in the trappings of state, wrapping a lion skin around himself and posing on the displaced throne. Yet this staging device also marooned the two characters required to drive the second half. Where the Manchester production had placed Edward centrestage in a fixed prison for the play’s final act, while the rest of the cast ran rings around him in a fantastic spatial representation of the play’s dynamics, this instead decentred Edward and left the usurpers with nowhere to go.

Yet despite the inconsistencies, the moments of individual illumination continued throughout. Prince Edward was dressed up his elders, yet the crown kept slipping down over his face in a humorous but also deeply pathetic sequence as he cried for his uncle, bundled away on the orders of a Mortimer who repeatedly hurt the young Prince. Maltravers and Gurney took off their soldier masks to reveal the reincarnated Lancaster and Warwick, previously Edward’s two greatest enemies, and Lightborn (similar to the Manchester production) was Soller again, reprising his intimacy with the King. The emotional manipulation of Lightborn, befriending and encouraging Edward, acted as the dark inversion of Gaveston’s earlier intimacy. The sequence ended, appropriately, with Lightborn calling Edward to crawl to him across the plastic-sheeted floor before forcing a wooden plank onto his back to allow for the poker to be inserted.

Among the eccentric ideas of the production, it was always Heffernan at the heart. While the production struggled to find the right tone between comedy and political comment, what the focus on distinct characterisation made clear was that this was a tragedy of a man who trusts too easily. Edward’s childish vacillation between kissing his wife in joy at her help in returning Gaveston and spitting despair at his execution, from his tender caressing of Spencer and Baldock to his screaming fear as Lightborn turned on him, Edward’s broken spirit and broken body bore the physical and psychological scars of a continuing procession of people who used him. If this was something of a depressing vision, the humour and intrigue of the play made it palatable, and Prince Edward’s final cocksure stance on the stage as Mortimer and Isabella were carried away both satisfied revenge while also continuing the impression of a self-serving centre of power. Not a perfect production, then, but stylish and provocative, and performed with gusto.

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