Shakespeare’s Globe, London – until 20 April 2019
Though King Edward II’s sexuality and the history surrounding his death are disputed by historians, Nick Bagnall takes a definitive stance in Marlowe’s history play. Here, the king is unquestionably gay and unashamed of his love for Piers Gaveston, one of his courtiers. It’s this unwavering love and devotion that gives ammunition to his enemies – a group of powerful barons, Scottish and French rulers, and even his wife – causing his violent and tragic downfall.
The small, yet perfectly formed, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse and its candlelight are a fitting environment for a story grounded in love. There are moments where the cast of 10 crowd the stage, and the battle scenes aren’t as impactful as they could be with more space, but the intimacy largely works in the show’s favour.
There are huge, conflicting forces at work within the plot, with that between church and state underscoring the personal tensions that propel the primary narrative. Richard Bremmer as the Archbishop of Canterbury makes an excellent villain and is a convincing threat. Of the latter kind of discord, one of the most rallying is that of King Edward (Tom Stuart) and his wife Isabella (Katie West). Broken-hearted by her husband’s misogynistic rejection of her, she gets off with one of the barons who opposes Edward, then returns to her native France to launch an attack against her husband. It’s the ultimate power move, and one that West embraces. Though no doubt homophobia plays a role in the attempts to exile the fairly bland and nonthreatening Gaveston and depose Edward, Isabella is threatened with violence and as a woman, she has less power than anyone else despite being Queen.
Marlowe’s ending embraces the unproved but popular story of Edward’s murder, and Bagnall stages it effectively. By the end of the production, the candlelight has been dimmed so much so the glowing end of the hot poker is all the more sinister. As the young and newly-crowned Edward III (a versatile Colin Ryan) uses his reign to seek justice for his dead father, balance is restored in the kingdom but deep, troubling scars remain on both the audience and surviving characters.