Grey poster featuring a crown sticking out of a circle.

March 2, 2019, by Peter Kirwan

Edward II (Shakespeare’s Globe) @ The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

Nick Bagnall’s new production of Edward II, reimagined for a candlelit indoor playhouse, collapsed its imagined spaces from the very opening. Gathering around the corpse of Edward I, the company (led by Richard Bremmer’s Archbishop of Canterbury) sang a Latin requiem and then crowned Edward II (Tom Stuart). Edward then began speaking his own summons to Gaveston, who appeared among the audience, taking up the words of Edward’s letter and sharing his joy with the audience. Played by Beru Tessema, Gaveston immediately identified himself with the people in the pit, and moved from among us to the main stage, where Edward watched him lovingly as Gaveston prepared to return to his love.

In this compressed adaptation, the story of Gaveston and Edward shaped the production’s first half, and Stuart and Tessema did excellent work establishing the intimacy between the two. There was no stereotyping or campness (indeed, Colin Ryan’s Bishop of Coventry was far more obviously camp, and Gaveston took great pleasure in kicking him to the ground, pinning him to the ground with his own staff, and then donning the mitre himself). Rather, these two men were simply in love. Stuart’s Edward couldn’t take his eyes of Gaveston, and many of the scenes saw him simply gazing past his increasingly angry nobles and queen. Bagnall kept the two apart a great deal – most movingly, when the two said their final farewell, they were in separate galleries with the gulf of the stage between them as they leaned towards one another. When they were together, they embraced tenderly, as if they were all that mattered.

The forces arrayed against Gaveston and Edward were formidable. All clad in formal colours and fantastically swooping capes (Jessica Worrall’s design sympathetically integrating the colours of the costume with the backdrop of the Sam Wanamaker), the four nobles made for imposing presences. The ostensible leader was Richard Cant’s Earl of Lancaster, with clipped speech and an uncompromising demeanour. Sanchia McCormack’s Warwick had a shock of dyed hair and kept himself a little distant, avoiding the moments of violence that erupted while clearly commanding great power. And Annette Badland was outstanding in the small role of Mortimer Senior, particularly when he crouched down to school his unruly nephew on the need to show allegiance to the king.

The antagonism between Edward and the nobles manifested as a continual negotiation of power. Edward was gently spoken but no pushover, and when asserting his regal authority he was straight-backed, firm and unyielding. The nobles grouped around him in a semi-circle, assailing him verbally from all sides and showing disrespect when marching from his presence, but only in the moment when they lunged at and wounded Gaveston did they overstep the formal boundaries around the king. Indeed, when they temporarily made peace and knelt before him, there seemed to even be some shared relief at the resumption of proper order.

Apart from the opening ceremony, and the later mirroring of this scene in Edward III’s coronation, the production eschewed formal pageantry, and Edward’s own entourage swelled and diminished in turns. He was accompanied throughout early scenes by Polly Frame’s Kent, who had one of the most complete arcs in the production – although diminutive, Kent stood in front of his brother with sword drawn to defend him, but showed a great deal of anguish as Gaveston’s power grew. The cutting in this production meant that Kent never seemed fully settled or committed to any one position, which heightened the sense of confusion as he oscillated between different sides. At the production’s conclusion, he screamed to his nephew for help before being dragged offstage, a man whose indecision had ultimately doomed him.

Edward’s other supporters were entertainingly framed. Baldock was cut, but Colin Ryan played Spencer as a comic figure, especially in contrast to the more straightforward co-romantic lead of Gaveston. Spencer’s bathetic tone prompted a lot of laughter, undermining the seriousness of the scene and lending a more informal air to his scenes, an informality that Kent and others reacted against (especially when Edward kissed him fully on the lips). Bremmer was entertaining as Spencer Senior, and Spencer Junior reacted with embarrassment to his father’s arrival. Badland, meanwhile, made for a formidable Arundel, especially showing guts when confronting the noblese to try and rescue Gaveston.

The wild cards on stage were Jonathan Livingstone’s Mortimer Jr and Katie West’s Queen Isabella. Livingstone’s Mortimer kept himself apart for a lot of the early scenes, his powerful voice often chiming in from the galleries or the pit. As the production went on, Mortimer tried to make connections with the audience, and had some moments where his righteous fury at the neglect of foreign affairs chimed through, giving some justification to his actions. The cutting to his and Isabella’s parts somewhat muted the intimations of an affair between them, but Mortimer especially showed his colours in a desperate scene where Colin Ryan’s Edward III pleaded with him to save Kent. Even here, and despite the fact that Mortimer had earlier slung the prince over his shoulder to take him offstage, when Edward III knelt Mortimer and the other lords mirrored him, showing shock at the new king debasing himself. Yet even in this position, Mortimer refused to yield, showing steadfast commitment rather than, necessarily, evil.

Isabella, meanwhile, was played with a great deal of sympathy and even humour. At the start, Edward’s neglect of her was outrageous, she having to call after him to be accorded even the barest of notice. She was present in the first scene as Edward welcomed Gaveston, and seemed devoted to her husband; one of the sweeter moments was as Edward clutched desperately onto Isabella upon the news that Gaveston would be repealed, promising a second marriage between them. The staging left Isabella repeatedly alone in the middle of the stage as others fled off in all directions, giving the impression of repeated abandonment which finally led her to, in exasperation, announce her departure from him. While West’s performance never turned Isabella into a villain, she grew in strength, including in a beautifully interleaved set of scenes where she dominated the balcony in armour, announcing the arrival of the French troops, while Edward and his companions rested on the main stage.

The two sides of this conflict repeatedly vied for the stage, and while the spatialisation was inconsistent, the sense was of a space repeatedly vacated and recolonised, especially during the battle scenes. Gaveston and Mortimer got to have a mano a mano duel that began with knives and ended hand to hand, with Lancaster breaking Gaveston’s left hand. But also haunting the stage were a series of hooded figures. The play’s many letters were always delivered by someone anonymous, who entered up the pit’s gangway with cowl covering their face, and then handed the letter wordlessly to whoever was on the stage, as if the letters were coming from the beyond. These hooded figures increasingly clustered in the production’s later scenes, surrounding Edward in his dungeon.

For the second half, most of the candles were extinguished, and the stage at times fell into near-total darkness. In this twilight, the focus shifted back to Edward. Stuart was regularly sat in the pit, head bowed, waiting for his next scene, reminding the audience of his state of captivity. And in the darkness, Tessema returned as Lightborn. The scene in which the murder was commissioned was beautifully done, with Mortimer looking squarely at the cowled figure who refused to lift his hood, and who growled his agreement to kill Edward before jumping off through the audience. There was no moment of metatheatrical realisation, no moment where Edward stared into his former lover’s face, just the embodiment of the anonymous instrument of state that persecuted Edward to his end.

And to this end, Edward was gradually and completely divested of his authority in physical terms as the production went on. When captured, he let his outer cloak slip to the floor, reducing himself to a plain appearance. In the scene where the Archbishop of Canterbury asked him to resign the crown, Edward took off and put back on the crown several times, using the prop as a signifier of his vacillation and the extent to which he felt himself coerced. And in the dungeon, he was reduced to a soiled nightshirt. The contrast was made clear as Edward III was crowned – with much less discordant music than that used for Edward II’s coronation – and the deposed king made his way up the aisle, gazing up in awe at his son now wearing his crown. Yet as the crown was brought forward, it lingered momentarily behind the head of Mortimer, signifying where the power really lay.

Lightborn’s sequence with Edward was played in almost total darkness, he extinguishing the remaining candles while speaking gently to Edward from under his cowl. Edward tremored and shook, clearly in pain as he was helped back up onto the stage frmo his lower position, and Lightborn laid him down on a rug. In the darkness, many of the mechanics were hidden, but Lightborn almost lovingly slipped Edward’s nightshirt off over his head, leaving the actor naked and foetal on the stage in the final divestment of the trappings of humanity. For the murder itself, several hooded figures held Edward down while Lightborn held the red hot spit aloft, and Edward screamed twice, loudly, before writhing and dying. His body was left on stage for the remainder of the production.

If there was a mis-step, it was that the decision to play these scenes in such darkness, while respectful of the actor, rather killed the impact of the last scene, as while Isabella and Mortimer held torches up to their faces, Edward III was in almost total darkness, reducing the ability to engage with his angst and indecision as he asserted himself first against Mortimer, and then belatedly his mother. Ryan played this emotionally, giving the sense that he was conflicted over these choices, while Isabella and Mortimer both left with their heads held high and their pride undiminished – if anything, Isabella seemed disappointed in her son. But sympathies were shaped by the lingering presence of Edward’s father’s body on stage. As the play reached its close, Edward III knelt down next to Edward II’s body, picked up a candle and, on his final line, blew it out and left them both in darkness.

Posted in Theatre review