March 31, 2019, by Peter Kirwan

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

Rarely have response plays so explicitly picked up where their prompt play left off. Beginning in blackout, an arm with a lantern reached down from the ceiling of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, momentarily illuminating the auditorium. Then, in the renewed darkness that followed, an almighty crash, before Tom Stuart’s Edward – the actor and character simultaneously leading Nick Bagnall’s production of Edward II in the same venue – was revealed having fallen from the heavens onto the stage. Where he had come from, and why he was there, was the subject of After Edward.

Stuart himself wrote this play, performed by the same ensemble as Edward II in repertory with that production, which served as both mesmerising companion piece and an outstanding piece of theatre in its own right. As a project, it presented itself as hugely empowering of the company, asserting their own agency and their own stories in response to their experience of the play they were putting on. While Stuart’s character was only ever identified as ‘Edward’, the character was revealed to be an actor playing the role of Edward, and as such it invited autobiographical reading; at the very least, this was a play of unusual personal expression for the Sam Wanamaker stage, home grown by both theatre and artists.

The production reconceived of the Sam Wanamaker – an unusually intimate space – as a prison. Played straight through without interval, boards were placed across the entrances into the space and the onstage doors were ‘locked’; Stuart’s character had no idea who he was, where he had come from, or why he was there, and repeatedly banged on the doors trying to be let out. The only thing he knew was that he was gay, and the enigmatic Archbishop of Canterbury (Richard Bremmer, retaining his character from Edward II) gave him no information beyond the reminder that homosexuality was an abomination. Edward was aware of the theatre and audience, but not of what to do with us. And someone or something was hammering on the doors to be let in. But then, it all got very queer indeed.

In Top Girls style, Edward was joined by interlocutors from the long history of LGBT+ icons, all claiming to have been summoned here by him but with no more idea of what they were doing there than he. Annette Badland’s Gertrude Stein emerged sitting on a pink-carpeted toilet on wheels, spinning around the stage while reciting languorous, repetitive poetry. Richard Cant stole the show (at the start and repeatedly) as the immaculately dressed Quentin Crisp, descending on a park bench from the flies and hovering above the stage for most of the running time. And Polly Frame clambered in over the audience (a lovely nod to her character Kent’s similar entrances in Edward II) as Harvey Milk, aiming to recruit people through a megaphone.

The performances were beautifully modulated. Edward was thoroughly modern, confused why his robe had the name tag ‘Edward the Second’ in it, when he was clearly speaking with a contemporary London twang. Crisp was quietly effete and acerbic, projecting scorn on Edward without confrontation; Stein was overwhelming, a loquacious and relentless assault on the senses. Frame’s Milk was exuberant, rarely without an enormous beaming smile on his face as he sought to bring his people together. The three arrivals alternately battled among themselves and joined forces against Edward’s inability to understand what was going on, with the tone gradually moving from attack to support over the course of the play. But the conflicts also became clear. Crisp in particular argued that sexuality was private and there was nothing to be proud of; Stein was fiercely individualist; Milk insisted on the importance of collective action, a position with which Edward strongly identified. At its fiercest – and a review does not justice to the beautiful repartee between the four – the debate centred on the very core of what it means to be gay.

While this debate was at the play’s heart, the rest of the ensemble catalysed the action. As a string quartet played ‘YMCA’, Colin Ryan and Bremmer appeared as a cowboy and leatherman, and Ryan repeatedly interrupted the debate to remind the four white people about the racial loadings of these questions (to great applause). Katie West appeared dressed as Dorothy Gale to spit on Edward. And in a series of increasingly surreal appearances, Margaret Thatcher (Sanchia McCormack) fought her way repeatedly onto the stage to read her declarations of Section 28 and tell the group that she regretted nothing. The increasingly distressed hair of the mad Maggie culminated in a song and tap routine, and the biggest roars of the night were for her ejections from the stage (helped by audience members blowing out the candle she carried); however, Crisp’s admiration of Thatcher, and his own insistence on being himself rather than being gay, fired the debate as the main four fought for what the role of a homosexual person was – and whether one’s sexual identity brought with it responsibilities to one’s community.

Yet in a brilliant twist, it was revealed that the production was not just about sexuality, but about acting. Jonathan Livingstone joined the group played Edward Alleyn, sharing his own views on the character of Edward II (‘bit of a whoopsie’), and revealing in turn that Stuart’s Edward was an actor himself. For me, the show’s funniest moments came as Stuart interrogated Alleyn about what it meant to play the role: ‘What was your process?’ ‘Through the double doors on a sweeping arc to the left’; ‘What did you ask Marlowe about the role?’ ‘What is my cue and what am I holding?’ The exchange nicely illustrated the historical specificity of a ‘process’ that involves digging into one’s own psyche and putting oneself into the role, but also opened up what was at stake here – the idea that the act of playing Edward II had forced Stuart’s actor to confront the shame he felt on account of his own sexuality.

What nuanced this beautifully was that it was not a case of gay = shame, but that the insidious effects of a society that insisted on difference and wrongness had left Stuart’s actor feeling fundamentally, and holistically, flawed. Stuart’s actor was proud to be gay and ashamed of himself, a contradiction that was nonetheless true, and this was brought to the fore in Beru Tessema’s late-stage appearance in the costume of Gaveston, but playing a character who was partly Gaveston and partly Billy, the main character’s ex. Billy, the louder and more confident partner, had been the actor’s main touchstone in exploring the Edward/Gaveston relationship, with both Billy and Gaveston embodying the defence against shame, the figure behind which Edward/the actor could hide. For our actor, playing Edward was both a distillation of past experience and therapy for those experiences, resulting in the identity crisis embodied by the actor’s entrapment in the Sam Wanamaker, surrounded by the heroes and villains whose words had shaped his identity.

Much like Emilia earlier in the day, Stuart’s play located the identity crisis at the intersection of both personal and political. As much as Crisp defended Thatcher’s individualism, the external pressures against homosexuality (especially in the late 80s and early 90s, the period in which Stuart himself grew up) were and are real. Pages from the Express and Mail fluttered down from the ceiling, calling for the extermination of gay people to fight AIDS, the enactment of Section 28, and – making clear the urgency of this play – the decision in only the last couple of weeks to remove LGBT awareness teaching from school curricula in the face of parental opposition in Birmingham. And during this sequence, blood appeared on Harvey Milk’s shirt; Gertrude Stein danced with her imagined lost love; and Gaveston pored over the newspapers, appalled by what he found there.

But the political is personal, and (even as someone who identifies as heterosexual) I recognised the particular insidiousness of anti-gay rhetoric in the 1980s that Stuart evoked away from the newspaper headlines, in the pervasive othering and demeaning of even the idea of homosexuality. The banging on the doors into the auditorium reached a climax as the unseen monster emerged – a mouthy little schoolboy with a backpack, the monster of the main character’s past, the school bully who still haunted the adult actor’s mind. The kid, Errol (played at this performance by Brian Bartle, I think) was unspeakably good, marching up to the stage while the adult actors all cowered in fear, and shouting 80s homophobic slurs at Edward, before suddenly breaking into a mature explanation of the sociopolitical constructs that shaped his behaviour and Edward’s own role in fanning the flames of his own shame. As a bravura theatrical moment, Edward and Errol’s confrontation was brilliantly good fun, but also dramatised the kind of direct encounter with the past that only the theatre makes possible.

And as the spirits of Homosexuality Past left the stage and Stuart changed out of Edward’s robes and into t-shirt and jeans, he reflected on what it meant to play a gay man, and how that compared to playing a straight boy as a child. He spoke of his hope for the future, in a world where couples in San Francisco get married in front of a bust of Harvey Milk. And as he looked to the future, the doors of the theatre all swung open, finally freeing him – and letting in The Fourth Choir and the rest of the cast to lead the audience in a triumphant chorus of ‘Your love is liberation’. Earlier in the play, Stuart had spoken of going to Berkeley Castle and seeing the dungeon – forty feet deep and six feet wide – in which Edward had possibly stood in filth for weeks, and which became a visual image of the entrapment and inescapability of society’s condemnation of homosexuality. The sensation of collective healing and freedom as the Wanamaker was filled with joyful voices was intoxicating.

Posted in Theatre review