Edward II by Christopher Marlowe. Directed by Charlotte Vickers for Oxford University Dramatic Society et al., Oxford Playhouse, 28 January 2017.
Reviewed by Peter Malin
References to the play are to Christopher Marlowe, Edward the Second, ed. by Martin Wiggins and Robert Lindsey, New Mermaids, 2nd edn (London: A. & C. Black, 1997).
Student productions are something of a lucky dip; if your luck is in, you can be rewarded by a theatrical experience that equals or even betters many professional shows. Such was the case with this fine staging of Marlowe’s pell-mell historical tragedy, presented here with a nod to the Brutalist aesthetic of 1980s Soviet culture, clashing with what costume designer Marcus Knight-Adams defined as the “New Romantic”, “post-punk ideals” espoused by Gaveston, in opposition to the “austere views of the nobles”. Calam Lynch, who played Edward, spoke in the Oxford Times of the parallels between the play and the production’s chosen setting: “In the USSR there was a confrontation between two factions, reformers and hardliners, and in the play Edward and his small group of allies face the English nobles”. Re-historicised productions of early modern drama have become not so much a trope as a cliché and here, as so often, the Cold War era setting added little to the play that we couldn’t have appreciated without it. One of the production’s great merits, though, was that it didn’t over-specify its conceptual conceit; this was still a play about power-politics in action, about the unworkable conjunction of ruthless ambition and sexual desire, with no indication of how any given faction might be remotely concerned with the welfare of ordinary people. In this production, even the poor men of scene 1 were excluded from the text.
Harriet Bourhill’s set design was simple but effective, with a huge, mock-concrete breezeblock, incorporating a starkly-embedded throne, placed centre-stage in front of a plain cyclorama lit during the show in a variety of colours. Two gauze panels, upstage left and right, allowed characters to eavesdrop on the play’s action. The only furniture, other than the throne’s cold, hard concrete, consisted of three matching grey boxes, knocking askew the set’s otherwise insistent symmetry. The play’s harsh atmosphere was enhanced by Jonny Danciger’s stirring, ominous music, and his bleak soundscore of wind, rain, violent seas and deafening battles. Knight-Adams’s costumes economically complemented Bourhill’s set with fur-trimmed coats and dresses for members of the political establishment and black leathers for the King’s sexually-transgressive favourites. In a neat touch, Gaveston’s leather jacket was delivered to the King as evidence of his execution and subsequently worn by him in tribute.
The production’s principal merit, however, lay in its clarity. The play’s narrative arc, largely free from subplots, is not exactly hard to follow, but here it was enhanced by the impeccable delivery of the verse. The vocal skills of virtually all the cast would have put many current RSC actors to shame, for which credit must go partly to the director, Charlotte Vickers. At the interval, an audience member a few seats away from mine – who, it was clear, did not know the play – commented to his family on how wonderful the language was. This, like the cast’s speaking, was music to my ears.
It could be argued, of course, that Marlowe’s metrically regular, generally end-stopped lines are easier to get across than the more complex verse structures of later Elizabethan and Jacobean playwrights. Even so, I have frequently heard actors complicate the clarity and impetus of Marlowe’s verse by introducing supposedly naturalistic inflections and hesitations that serve only to render its sense opaque. Not here, though. For me, the vocal clarity of these student performers drew attention more than ever before to the play’s verbal reiterations, which contribute so powerfully to its thematic concerns. The prefix “over-”, constantly invoked in words such as “overruled”, “overdaring”, “overjoys”, “overstretched” or “over-base”, draws attention to the culture of excess that infects the society of the play, developed too in recurring images of surfeit, swelling, growth and aspiration. Frequently, characters on both sides assert that they cannot “brook” the words, actions or even the existence of their opponents, creating an atmosphere of extreme intolerance that is instrumental in driving the country apart. Never before have I noticed quite how strongly the name of Gaveston reverberates through the play, as a site of both desire and opprobrium, a talisman of conflicting ideologies.
Appropriately, Gaveston begins the play, and in this production he prowled the stage as the audience took their seats, clutching Edward’s letter inviting him to “share the kingdom” (1.2). Sam Liu’s delivery of his opening soliloquy set the tone for what followed. Cool, slim, crop-haired, self-contained, clad in black leather jacket and skin-tight leather trousers, he took control of the stage, the play and the audience with his measured, unhurried speaking and his enigmatic demeanour. He made us listen intently, and we never stopped doing so. He was well-matched with Calam Lynch’s good-looking Edward, their mutual passion demonstrated by frequent bouts of public kissing – though there was always an ambiguity about Gaveston’s motives that contrasted effectively with the King’s more transparent, if unstable, emotional volatility. One surprising feature of the play, perhaps, is that the barons’ objections to Gaveston are based largely on his social inferiority, but here, as in most modern productions, it was his and Edward’s sexual relationship that aroused their ire and disgust. Their onstage reactions demonstrated a homophobia that the play itself never explicitly confirms; in the text, their reiterated complaint is that Gaveston is a social upstart. As Mortimer explains, “his wanton humour grieves not me, | But this I scorn, that one so basely born | Should […] grow so pert” (4.403-05). Emotionally, Lynch’s Edward kept his powder dry until he was brought the news of Gaveston’s death, when he movingly articulated his great aria of grief-fuelled vengeance (11.128-42). Lynch’s performance reached its emotional climax, as it should, in the play’s almost unbearable closing scenes. Wallowing near-naked in the filth of the prison, his distress was painful, and his desperation in embracing the apparently sympathetic advances of Adam Husain’s spine-tingling Lightborne was entirely convincing. The sexualised subtext of this scene was palpable but not overdone, and the horrific business with the red-hot spit was cut mercifully short, blocked from our view by the judicious placing of the table – a prop whose purpose is not entirely clear from the text – across Edward’s prone body, so that we saw the agony on his face and heard it in his screams, but had to imagine its precise cause; no chance of inappropriate audience laughter here.
The play’s other leading roles were performed with the same level of skill and assurance. Rosa Garland charted Queen Isabella’s downward spiral into treachery and adultery with unsentimental empathy. Joe Stephenson as Mortimer followed up his humane performance as Frankford in A Woman Killed with Kindness (see my review) with a compelling portrayal of Machiavellian ambition undermined by self-defeating overconfidence. Marcus Knight-Adams doubled costume design with acting, presenting Spencer as a nastier incarnation of Gaveston, with spiky black hair and a gratingly incisive voice.
Outside the central roles, the play’s characters were distributed between mostly female actors, which somehow managed to avoid the danger of creating a gaggle of anonymous, interchangeable barons and churchmen. Notable among these were Georgie Murphy as Kent and Anushka Chakravarti as Lancaster. Jonny Wiles was a strong presence as Warwick; less so as the Abbot of Neath. Prince Edward is a key figure in the dramatic impact of the play’s final scenes, and Julia Pilkington effectively conveyed the child’s physical restlessness, emotional confusion and vulnerability. She could, though, have heightened the impact of the final scene with stronger vocal projection and a greater sense of the ironies implicit in her (his?) assertion of “innocency”, the play’s final word, in the face of her ruthless administering of justice on Mortimer and Isabella, and her calculated performance with the former’s severed head.
My problem with gender-specific pronouns at the end of the previous paragraph is perhaps worth a few further words. The most common approaches in casting women in male roles are either to regender the roles themselves or to accept that women are playing men. In this production, the issue of gender was more fluid, so that Kent could retain the name of Edmund yet be addressed as “lady” or “sister”, while the Prince was simultaneously “Edward”, “son”, “daughter” and “Princess”. This gender flexibility could have been explored more fully in the choice of actors, since it was notable that only the secondary roles were considered viable for cross-gender casting, and then only in one direction. Thus, although there were ten men and ten women in the company, the play still seemed heavily male-dominated. These are matters that will continue to be explored in the staging of early modern drama and in the wider theatrical repertoire. For now, this production of Edward II was a memorable demonstration of just how good student theatre can be.
 “Remaking History”, in Edward II, Oxford Playhouse, 2017, programme.
 Quoted in William Crossley, “Royal Political Drama Gets Soviet Makeover”, Oxford Times, 19 January 2017.
 The production further streamlined the play by cutting episodes such as the introduction of Spencer and Baldock and the Lady Margaret intrigue (mostly scene 5), as well as all but the final appearance of Spencer Senior, who was brought in hooded prior to his execution.
The views expressed in this post are the author’s own.
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