Dir: Joe Hill-Gibbins
180 min • National Theatre, London • From August 28 – October 26 , 2013
After the coronation of King Edward II, the cast of Joe Hill-Gibbins’ superb rendering of Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II sing ‘God Save The King’. There is a rustle in the audience and a great many whispers, stiff voices no doubt indignant that this is historically inaccurate. (The first instance of the song is dated 1619.) And then Piers Gaveston speaks from amongst the audience. He is American, and dressed casually in jeans and a t-shirt. Kyle Soller’s Gaveston is all confident swagger and sex appeal. He strides onto the stage and embraces Edward in a way that declares that this is not a fraternal bond but a sexual one. From the start, this reading of Edward II is clearly contemporary, and decidedly bold.
Edward II tells the story of Gaveston’s relationship with Edward, and the disastrous consequences of that relationship for the king and the kingdom. Gaveston is recalled from banishment. Then he is banished again by the disgruntled barons at court. Then he is called back. Marlowe’s structuring of the story is, as well as being historically imprecise, slightly ludicrous, and the joy of this production is that it does not shy away from that fact. There is humour in the situation, and there is humour in the text, which encompasses many elements of farce. Hill-Gibbins brings this to the fore unashamedly.
This is a reading of Marlowe for a younger audience; an audience that would find a straight version of this odd play rather ludicrous. And undoubtedly dull. In the interval, I was sat next to a gathering of old fossils who complained that the cast were taking the mickey out of the play. “It’s just amateur dramatics,” drawled a peevish octogenarian.
The cast is, in fact, exceptional. John Heffernan’s Edward, a questionable leader who fawns over his “minion” Gaveston, is at times more queen than king, and at others a king at sea in a role to which he is unequal. Vanessa Kirby is outstanding as Queen Isabella, and plays the role for its strengths, even at her weakest moments. It is very much a post-Game of Thrones, Queen Cersei reading of the part. The tough role of Prince Edward, who progresses from a lost boy to a decisive king, is realised beautifully, and with great subtlety, by Bettrys Jones.
The use of multimedia throughout is ingenious. The scenes that feature the conspirators play out in the backrooms of the set and simultaneously screened. It makes perfect sense. The entrance of Gaveston’s pals Spencer and Baldock starts outside the theatre, and they are followed until they reach the stage. This enriches the performance.
This post-Jarman Edward II is about homosexuality, but it is also about class. Soller’s jeans-clad Gaveston is out of Edward’s class, and also foreign to the barons. His relaxed, confident sexuality is decidedly un-English. I am not sure why Soller is also cast to play the part of Edward’s assassin, Lightborn. Perhaps there is a message in there that his lover was also his killer – but if that is the case it doesn’t convince.
Joe Hill-Gibbins’ Edward II is ultimately a rewarding experience, and a fascinating interpretation of a Renaissance play for a contemporary audience. It breathes life and meaning into a play that could easily be absurd.