Edward II, dir. Nick Bagnall @ Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, March, 2019His Contemporaries

  • Boika Sokolova

Edward II, directed by Nick Bagnall, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, 4 March, 2019.

Cast: Annette Badland, Richard Bremmer, Richard Cant, Polly Frame, Jonathan Livingstone, Sanchia McCormack, Colin Ryan, Tom Stuart, Beru Tessema, Katie West.

Reviewed by: Geoffrey Allman, Maeve Barker, Emily Cline, Caitlyn Clinton, Alexander Dunn, Christopher Hayes, Meghan Jennings, Will Jones, Margaret Lohuis, Connor Mulvena, Leah Peluchiwski, Bennett Rogers, Timothy Thompson (Shakespeare in London Class, Spring 2019, The University of Notre Dame (U.S.A.) in England. Instructor: Dr Boika Sokolova)


Marlowe’s Edward II, directed by Nick Bagnall, was the second production we saw at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, after Shakespeare’s Macbeth. For these performances we were seated in different parts of the house, which made us aware of the peculiarities of the space and raised questions regarding the limited position from which a reviewer can reliably estimate a production in this theatre. While for Macbeth we were in the centre of the pit and could see the finest detail, our upper circle side seats for Edward II blocked the view of much of the stage. As a result, the present collective review offers an honestly limited perspective on the production and raises a question regarding the act of reviewing in this theatre from a non-privileged position, and more generally, how this affected our theatrical experience.


Two major forces collide in Marlowe’s play—the powers of politics and sexual desire. One requires cohesion and action (as understood in a baronial world), the other pulls against it. In either case, Marlowe unflinchingly looks into the egotistical self-interests behind the characters’ actions, into their excessive and very similar cruelty, which keeps us on the edge of identifying fully with either of them.


Aristocratic splendour was on display from the start. Even as the audience entered, a coffin placed on a cloth with a mosaic pattern, attracted the gaze. The candle light brought out the  gold in the decoration of the frons scenae, enhancing the sense of glamour. The action proper began with the end of the solemn ceremony of Edward I’s burial, accompanied by music and a splash of colour coming from the costume of the Archbishop of Canterbury. As the coffin slowly moved out of sight, the new king (Tom Stuart’s Edward II) spoke the opening verse, “My father is deceased, come Gaveston”, which was taken up by the voice of Gaveston (Beru Tessema) who came in  through the audience.  Thus, from the very beginning, we were made aware of the mutuality of the passion, linking the two characters. However, as Marlowe hastens to tell us, Gaveston is driven by a self-serving ambition and plans to “draw the pliant king which way [he]… please[s]” (1.1.52). His desire to belong to the court world was visible in his elegant purple outfit – a colour worn also by the Queen – and by the conspicuously rich jewelry, similar to Edward’s own, which he sported on his cloth-of-gold costume. In the end, the erotic “dying”, (1.1.69) promised in Gaveston’s opening speech, was enacted as the gruesome violence perpetrated by Lightborn, with Tassema double-cast as the murderer.


Bagnall’s production suggested the homoerotic infatuation between Gaveston and Edward through their physical closeness, touching and kissing, contrasting with the coolness and distance between the king and queen. The intensity of the king’s obsession with his male lover underlined the difficulties before Isabella, who is the other emotional node of the play. The two golden thrones, set upstage, which for much of the first part were occupied by Gaveston and Edward were the site of tension. Under the stress of the situation, Katie West’s diminutive, but determined Isabella, turned from a wife trying to make the best of a bad bargain, to a fierce enemy. Her quick-witted responses were laden with irony which did not pass unnoticed. At the promise of a “second marriage”, after she helped repeal Gaveston, she looked out into the audience and exclaimed with obvious sarcasm, “may it prove more happy than the first!” (1.4. 334, 335), pausing, aware of the ensuing laughter. In 2.4., after Edward offered a passionate farewell to Gaveston, her wry, “no farewell to Isabel?” (2.4. 13) provoked a similar response. Upon her return from France in 4.4., Isabella’s changed position, from a rejected queen to a leader of a military opposition, was visualised by positioning her on the balcony from where she energetically rallied forces against her husband’s misrule, for “[m]isgoverned kings are cause of all this wrack” (4.4.9). In this way, the production underlined her agency.


In Marlowe, both sex and politics are obsessive, violent, driven by egoism, a state of affairs which, judging by the audience reaction, seemed to provoke a sense of recognition. The frivolous excesses and quick reversibility in awarding the treasures of the kingdom, whether titles or possessions, actually made the audience laugh. The production underscored the hard-headedness and fundamental sameness of the opposing sides, which resonated with dealings in modern bureaucracies. Political and personal rancour were obvious in 2.2, when Jonathan Livingstone’s assertive Mortimer Jr. came looking for a ransom for his captured uncle and Edward almost shut the door in the kneeling baron’s face. The audience offered its loudest laugh as Tom Stuart’s lovelorn effete Edward stood on the balcony in expectation of his beloved Gaveston in 2.2., and at the way he dismissed the invasion of Normandy by the French, as a “trifle” ( l.10).


The cuts to the text, which disposed of, or amalgamated characters, and a note in the programme, suggest that in this production, the focus was on the personal and human side of the characters’ strife. In our case, the darkness and the limited visibility underscored the aural element and the quality of verse speaking, which was often our only key to the events on the stage and the emotion of characters. The relationship between the king and Collin Ryan’s Spencer Junior was poetically charged, while the scene at Neath Abbey (4.6) hit a moving note of quiet hope before the double climax of the deposition and Edward’s murder. Though in the darkness we could only see hooded figures, the intimacy and pathos of the moment came across strongly.


Our close proximity to the balcony, where the musicians performed, also highlighted the production’s sound elements. In a way, our position allowed us to connect more deeply with the intense and versatile work of the orchestra and with the theatre space itself. Bill Barclay’s score involved a variety of Renaissance and modern instruments: cello, recorder, clarinet, as well as some African ones, like nyatiti and kora, with a deeper, raspier sound. The mixture of bagpipe wail and funeral requiem, collapsing into discordant sound, with which the play opened, boded a world without poise or harmony. On the other hand, the sweet music at Tynemouth spoke of Edward’s longing for Gaveston.


Though we could not see how the performance handled a number of moments, like the display of the barons’ impressa in 2.2, Edward’s death in Berkeley Castle was positioned centre stage which allowed us to experience the moment as spectators. The single dark blanket on the floor was a long way from the spectacular painted cloth at the opening. Similar was Edward’s transformation from a golden prince to a ragged prisoner. We watched him with compassion, which is how the play works, to which the production added suggestive references to Christ. Before the gruesome impalement he suffered, Edward was stripped naked of his long white shirt, exposing a thin, helpless body contorted on the stage. The red tip of a spit shone in the dark, its thrust followed by a horrible scream.

The play, ended as it began, with a funeral bier and music. Collin Ryan, now impersonating a gentle Edward III, placed Mortimer’s severed head next to the corpse of his father.

This quiet production of Edward II had a reduced cast of ten, which necessitated double and cross-gender casting. Polly Frame gave a convincing Earl of Kent. Richard Bremner was an imposing Archbishop of Canterbury and a shaky, old Spencer Senior who was clearly not going to be much help to Edward’s cause, but rather a portent of the defeat to come.

While the production stayed within the limits of its period and avoided engagement with contemporary concerns, we could hear in Marlowe’s play patterns familiar from contemporary political realities. Our experience was visually limited, but acoustically rich, the theatre was full of sounds, but we really wished to have been able to see more and offer a richer and more comprehensive review. After all, the Greek word from which the modern word “theatre” derives, means a place for viewing.


The views expressed in this post are authors’ own.

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Boika Sokolova

Author: Boika Sokolova

Boika Sokolova teaches Shakespeare on the London Program of the University of Notre Dame (USA) in England. She works on the reception and appropriation of Shakespeare in Europe, performance history and reviewing. Her publications and reviews have appeared in international journals and collections. Among her books are Painting Shakespeare Red (2001), an e-book on The Merchant of Venice (2009) and editions of collections of essays. She has recently published a cluster of articles 'Bulgarian Shakespeares' in Toronto Slavic Quarterly, no. 60, Spring 2017 and "‘Mingled Yarn’: The Merchant of Venice East of Berlin and the Legacy of ‘Eastern Europe’" Shakespeare Survey 71, (2018). She is our Associate Editor for Bulgaria.