St Bartholomew the Great, London – until 3 July 2015
Terry Eastham (@Terry_Ea) guest reviews Edward II
Now I’m no republican, but the problem with a hereditary monarchy is that you never really know who you will get ruling you. They could be good or evil, sensible or mad, a statesman/woman or just a state, it’s all a bit of a lottery. This then is the central theme to Christopher Marlowe’s play “Edward II” or to give it its full title “The Troublesome Reign and Lamentable Death of Edward the Second, King of England, with the Tragical Fall of Proud Mortimer.”
Edward (Edward Fisher) has ascended to the throne and in one of his first acts as King he has recalled from exile his good friend Gaveston (Pip Bignall). Now, when I say friend I am being a little coy as it is fairly obvious that the two of them are actually lovers. This is not really a problem for the court, though Edward’s wife, Queen Isabella (Ava Armande) is not really pleased to have to fight for her husband’s attention. The real issue is that Gaveston is not of noble birth, and although Edward bestows titles, lands and money on him, he is never accepted by the nobility of England as one of the club. Lord Mortimer (Martin Prest), The Duke of Lancaster (Graham Putney) and the Earl of Warwick (Patrick Oldham) along with Edward’s brother, the Earl of Kent (Anna Buckland) and the Holy Roman See in the form of the Bishop of Winchester (David J Keogh) try to turn the king against Gaveston but to no avail, until eventually they decide to take matters into their own hands. Edward is incensed by this action and following the advice of his current favourite, Lord Spencer (Damian Rogan) has revenge on his court, including his wife and his son Prince Edward (Josh Pugh) who he exiles to France. Eventually, Mortimer rescues the Queen and young Prince and they return to England to raise an army and challenge Edward’s authority and ability to be King.
“Edward II” is presented by Scena Mundi as part of their ‘Sad Stories of the Death of Kings’ rep season at St Bartholomew the Great, running alternately with Richard II. The two plays are similar in many respects, particularly their themes of power given to the wrong people, but their language is very different. Whilst Shakespeare’s Richard flows with poetic lyricism, Marlowe’s Edward is more brutal and Edward Fisher really seems to revel in delivering the King’s words. There is poetry though and this is really evident in Gaveston’s opening monologue during which Pip Brignall, in a truly wonderful performance, grabs the audience’s attention and holds in completely as his character celebrates his return from exile.
As I’m sure you can guess from the title, If you are a reigning monarch then these are not happy plays with a cheerful ending, in fact Edward’s ending is probably one of the worst you will ever see. However, the staging in the truly awe-inspiring nave of St Bartholomew’s is inspired – the church had already been in existence over a hundred years when Edward succeeded the throne. While the space is limited, Director Cecilia Dorland makes wonderful use of it, moving her actors along its length towards the altar dominated by a plain but imposing throne. The play is staged in time that doesn’t exist but which works perfectly. The costumes by Penny Rischmiller, are a mixture of 14th and 20th century outfits that really shouldn’t work in theory but somehow do. For example, the nobles all wear grey business suits cut off at the arms to allow their chain mail to hang freely. This mixture of costumes makes a marvellous bridge between then and now and in many respects highlights the frailty of celebrity, either as an absolute monarch or just as someone that the public raise up then knock down when they are done with them.
Ultimately, “Edward II” is a really fantastic play. The writing is superb, tackling ideas and themes that make the audience question their own morals. The direction, acting and location are just perfect and I count myself very lucky to have been able to see both this and “Richard II” during their superb run.