Edward II by Christopher Marlowe by the National Theatre Company, at the Olivier Theatre, The National Theatre, London, 29 September 2013
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).
All reviews quoted are taken from Theatre Record, 33.18, 24 September 2013, pp. 785-88.
It is tempting to review the reviewers of Joe Hill-Gibbins’s fine production of Marlowe’s tragedy. Scanning through the derogatory assessments of “modish theatrical devices” (Charles Spencer, Daily Telegraph) and “flashy conceits” (Henry Hitchings, Evening Standard), one might be forgiven for assuming the review writers had been shielded from the past fifty years or so of contemporary theatre and never exposed to the work of Katie Mitchell, say, or Cheek by Jowl, or the various manifestations of site-specific performance-art located in dark tunnels or abandoned warehouses. Rarely can the word “gimmick” and its derivations – “gimmicky”, “gimmickry”, “Gimmicksville” (Quentin Letts, Daily Mail) – have been so ubiquitous. It is difficult to understand quite what provoked such a disgruntled response. Hill-Gibbins had devised what might be described as a post-Brechtian production, at the heart of which was a clear, powerful, urgent, emotional and energetic rendering of this flawed masterpiece. And despite the critical carping, the play’s language was delivered with the requisite melding of meaning and lyricism. In short, the production was nothing like as challenging or transgressive as the reviewers seemed to be suggesting; less so, indeed, than Marlowe’s works must have been in their own time, as Emma Smith reminded us in her programme note.
The style of the production announced itself long before the play began. Prominent on the stage’s forward semicircle was an imagining of the medieval court: a central throne on a raised, stepped dais; two plush chairs stage right; a stage-left table crammed with gold-plated utensils and a crucifix; and two gold chandeliers suspended over the scene. Above the throne, an elaborate gold drop-curtain hung in readiness to complete the effect of regal wealth and ostentatious display. Behind all this, however, were exposed the mechanics of modern theatre, with the stage stripped back to its furthest extent revealing a line of reversed scenic flats, lighting grids and stands, costume racks, props tables, stepladders and the stage-crew going about their business. As a pianist, Sam Cable, entered to play baroque harpsichord music, the actors began to prepare themselves backstage while an ASM vacuumed the pale yellow palace carpet in preparation, as it turned out, for the King’s extra-textual coronation scene. As the ceremony began, in full period pageantry, a “photo-montage of English monarchs” (Georgina Brown, Mail on Sunday) was projected on the huge concrete slabs that overhang the sides of the Olivier stage, beginning with our present Queen and ending with John Heffernan’s embodiment of the title role. These “screens” were also used to display Brechtian scene-captions and what Michael Billington in the Guardian inexplicably called the production’s “big innovation”, in which “characters are tracked by lightweight cameras”, both onstage and backstage, with scenes played out as live footage in vastly enlarged images. Perhaps Billington didn’t remember this technique being used as long ago as 1983 in Ron Daniels’s RSC production of Julius Caesar – although it was dropped later in the run. The coronation ended with an anachronistic rendering of the current National Anthem, followed by the physically dangerous eruption into the play of Kyle Soller’s Gaveston, a “bumptious, leather-jacketed American clubber” (Billington), from one of the auditorium’s raised side-balconies, in a decisive disruption of the spurious medievalism previously on show. Again, this was hardly innovative, recalling the shocking incursion of Jonathan Pryce as Christopher Sly into Michael Bogdanov’s Taming of the Shrew (RSC, 1978); or, indeed, of the opening conceits of Beaumont’s Knight of the Burning Pestle or Stoppard’s The Real Inspector Hound.
Other features of the production to which many of the reviewers objected were similarly unexceptionable. Costumes and props ranged across time from the medieval to the modern. There were three different modes of cross-gender casting, with Kirsty Bushell’s Kent played as a woman, Bettrys Jones’s Prince Edward as a boy and Penny Layden’s Pembroke – I think – as a man, though it didn’t really matter. Kent’s power-suit and stilettos were as effectively indicative of corporate shiftiness as Queen Isabella’s chain-smoking was of her neurotic resentment. Weirdly helmeted guards and soldiers, designated in the programme as “The Dogs” (of war, perhaps), haunted the stage throughout, sometimes filming the action – disturbingly suggestive of constant surveillance by a military power of frighteningly uncertain allegiance. The actors were visibly miked, presumably for filming purposes but also enhancing the alienating theatricality of the presentation. Most controversially, perhaps, the dialogue occasionally veered from Marlowe to modern-colloquial, especially in some of the filmed scenes. One of the most effective of these followed Spencer and Baldock (Nathaniel Martello-White and Ben Addis) from the National’s riverside balconies, into the building, through the corridors, ousting the stage-door keeper and bursting on to the stage – a very funny sequence performed with wit and panache. Far from being merely “flashy tricks” (Spencer), these techniques were put to the service of the play, its characters and themes, going far beyond a fashionable nod to contemporary relevance. The filmed scenes of conspiring barons, for example, gave a real sense of back-room politicking, while the eclectic costuming was always employed as a marker of character and status rather than being merely “irritatingly flip” (Maxie Szalwinska, Sunday Times). The destruction of the kingdom was violent and noisy, with the stage settings knocked down and thrown about in a swirl of chaos. We didn’t need any help to imagine Egypt, or Syria, or any other arena of contemporary civil conflict, and Hill-Gibbins was not crass enough to patronise us by spelling out the connections.
After the interval, the play’s visual world had become claustrophobic, the backstage area closed off by black screens. The central feature of the set was now a huge, grey metal container, buried under the detritus of rule, used mainly as a makeshift office for the petty functionaries of a repressive state. The roof of this structure had become the power-base of Mortimer (an imposing Kobna Holdbrook-Smith), his mistress Isabella (Vanessa Kirby) and the young Prince Edward, a striking presence throughout the production, presented as a red-blazered, absurdly-fringed, short-trousered schoolboy (not unlike Wee Jimmie Krankie, as a number of reviewers sneeringly pointed out) who gained in stature when he finally acquired the textual voice granted him by Marlowe. A boy actor in the role would perhaps have been more touching, but the diminutive Bettrys Jones had the skill to progress from childish innocence, through the humiliation of the huge crown’s dropping completely over his head to form a ridiculous collar, to a knowing authority combined with the maturity to deliver the ambiguous irony of the play’s closing words of “grief and innocency” (25.102) while clutching the bagged head of the ambitious Mortimer.
The play’s central actors played out their political and emotional dramas with passion and conviction. Kirby’s Isabella was a society beauty trapped in a loveless marriage; sound familiar? She kept us, and perhaps herself, guessing about her conflicted feelings for Edward and Mortimer, and vied painfully for her son’s affections with “aunt” Kent. Brittle and disillusioned by the end of the play, she was distanced from us as an object of pity, and Kirby was right not to play for easy sympathy. Holdbrook-Smith was charismatic but not likeable, clearly on the way to becoming Tamburlaine or Richard III by his final scenes. John Heffernan charted Edward’s progress from “whimsical tyrant to tragic victim” (Billington) with enormous skill. There was no doubting his passion for Gaveston, nor his grief at his death. His painful acquisition of self-knowledge through suffering was enormously moving, and his ignominious death was as horrible as it should be, though the “spit” was not visibly “red hot” (24.30) which, perhaps thankfully, diminished the impact. Soller’s Gaveston was perhaps the most interesting performance; he was both “a flirt and a thug” (Hitchings), with a nimble athleticism and an alluring sexual presence that was fully exploited in his lingering kisses with Edward. It has become common practice to double Gaveston with Lightborn, an appropriate conjunction of the two terminally buggering influences on Edward and his kingdom, but perhaps this is a semiotic conceit whose significance is not easily read by a non-academic audience; I overheard two departing groups expressing puzzlement that Gaveston had apparently not been executed at all, or perhaps had come back to life.
Though Sarah Hemming in the Financial Times thought the production full of “excessive excess”, in places it was disappointingly restrained. I was surprised not to see any of the “lascivious shows” devised by Gaveston (6.154), other than a brief filmed glimpse of frenetic partying in a back room; and the expectation of lashings of blood at Edward’s death, suggested by the laying down of a huge plastic sheet, was left unfulfilled. The play is partly about excess, emphasised linguistically in the insistent repetition of the prefix “over-” and the imagery of growth, height, aspiration and surfeit. The language also delineates a culture of intolerance, often directed at Gaveston’s social inferiority and signalled again by a repeated keyword, in this case the verb “to brook”: “What man of noble birth can brook this sight?” (4.13). The Americanisation of Gaveston perhaps clouded the issue of his unacceptable status as a “base peasant” (4.7), but its substitution by an equally virulent xenophobia did not jar. As in the text, the lords seemed more incensed by Gaveston’s status as outsider than by his sexual relationship with the king.
The text of the play was effectively slimmed down, with some characters – the poor men (Scene 1), Lady Margaret (Scene 5) and Spencer Senior (Scene 11) – cut completely and others subsumed into existing roles. The Arundel/Maltravers confusion was neatly sidestepped by having Baldock (a comically wimpish Ben Addis) deliver Edward’s plea for a final audience with Gaveston (Scene 9), leaving Maltravers to function solely as one of Mortimer’s henchmen in the closing scenes. This certainly made as much sense as the text’s lack of clarity about his unexplained switch of allegiance, though it perhaps smoothed over the play’s clear-sighted presentation of self-serving political expediency.
Even the reviewers who admired the performances and the production’s “locomotive anarchy” (Neil Norman, Daily Express) shared the general sense that it was “a director’s holiday” (Billington) with “far too much concept” (Hemming). A number, however, perpetrated some of the most stereotyped assumptions about audiences that I have ever read. As the holder of a bus pass, I was a little put out to read Hemming’s assertion, “It’s young, it’s vivid and it’s raw”. Not for the likes of me, clearly. Mark Shenton in the Sunday Express made a similar assumption: “Younger theatregoers may be impressed by this inventiveness, but those of us who have been around a bit may stifle a yawn”. Szalwinska went further, denigrating the production as “one of those slackly avant-gardish stagings that will set off traditionalist harrumphers about it being the worst thing they’ve ever sat through at the NT, and they won’t be entirely wrong”. I have certainly been known to harrumph at concept-driven productions, but only where the concept has swamped the play and left the actors floundering (Lucy Bailey’s 2013 RSC Winter’s Tale – j’accuse). It was left to Andrzej Lukowski in Time Out London to provide the most comprehensively offensive audience stereotypes, covering all the bases of age, gender, social class and political affiliation in one squirm-inducing sentence: “The NT could scarcely have staged a more yoof-courting/blue-rinse-brigade-baiting season opener than this if it had gone the whole hog and kicked September off with a One Direction concert”. It is sad to think that such comments might have dissuaded even a few people from seeing this stunning production.