Edward II by Christopher Marlowe; directed by Nora Schlocker for Schauspielhaus Wien, Theater Basel and Wiener Festwochen at Schauspielhaus Wien, Vienna, Austria. Seen on 31st May 2015
Reviewed by Ludwig Schnauder
“Edward II. Die Liebe bin ich by Ewald Palmetshofer after Christopher Marlowe”, this is the full title of this co-production by Schauspielhaus Wien, Theater Basel and Wiener Festwochen (<https://www.schauspielhaus.at/edward_ii_die_liebe_bin_ich_>; premiere 26th May 2015). It signals that this version of the play should be considered a rewriting rather than a straightforward translation. The subtitle, “Die Liebe bin ich” could be translated as “I am love” or, more emphatically, as “Love, that’s who I am”, consciously varying Louis XIV’s absolutist statement “L’état c’est moi!”. It obviously draws attention to Edward’s love for Gaveston but also to the way the king neglects the tension between the absolutism of his private love with that demanded by the state which will bring about his downfall.
The Schauspielhaus Wien is a smaller venue seating about 200 spectators, which is known for innovative, experimental productions and for supporting new writing by young German and Austrian dramatists such as the rising star Ewald Palmetshofer. Together with the young Austrian director Nora Schlocker he has reduced Marlowe’s extensive dramatis personae to just ten characters, played by eight actors: Edward, his son, Gaveston, Isabella, Mortimer, Spencer and four unnamed peers. One of the latter is a bishop whose role is greatly expanded in order to highlight Edward’s conflict with religion in general and the Church of Rome in particular.
To find an equivalent for Marlowe’s celebrated language is certainly not an easy task. Palmetshofer opts for an artificial, stilted German which is strongly rhythmical, aspiring towards blank verse and rhyme. To achieve this Palmetshofer takes a lot of artistic licence with the language, often bending the rules of German grammar and word order. In addition, he enjoys mixing high and low registers and adding neologisms, colloquialisms and explicitly sexual and scatological remarks. The result is a completely new text which has its own rough poetic beauty and sparkle but which often remains opaque, if not hermetic. It frequently made me yearn for the much more straightforward and forceful language of Marlowe’s original.
The stage (Marie Roth), which consists of large copper sheets, is minimalist but extremely effective. Two huge steps lead up to a platform bordered by a back wall. The steps are hard to climb and whoever stands on top is in a position of absolute power. The design therefore emblematizes the struggle for power and the rise and fall of the mighty that Schlocker and Palmetshofer want to tell. The playing space remains bare throughout most of the production and only a few props are used. The audience surrounds the stage on three sides and when the peers debate what to do, they do not just address each other but also the spectators around them as if they were speaking in parliament.
Similarly to the stage, the costumes (Sanna Dembowski) make obvious symbolic statements. While the King (Simon Zagermann) is dressed from top to toe in gold, the peers wear black, mock-Elizabethan costumes with excessively broad white ruffs. Isabella (Myriam Schröder) appears in a stiff white dress on huge, glittering platform shoes; her ruff looks like two wings that seem to stifle her. However, once she returns from France to intrigue with Mortimer (Michael Wächter), she has changed into a white catsuit over which she wears a hooped, see-through skirt and a large red cloth which indicates her transformation into a stateswoman and power politician. Gaveston (Thiemo Strutzenberger) is the embodiment of the toy boy: with thick, tousled hair, piercing blue eyes, a white shirt open to his chest and green shorts, he seems to have just got out of bed. However, already on first appearance he demonstrates his aggressiveness by brutally humiliating the hypocritical bishop, whom Thomas Reisinger portrays as an effeminate, repressed homosexual.
The first part of the production is dominated by the love between Edward and Gaveston and the rising hatred of the peers. Although no doubt is left as to the nature of the relationship between Edward and Gaveston, explicit sexuality occurs in the text rather than the action on stage. Palmetshofer has, for instance, added an intimate scene in which Gaveston – at first sitting, then standing in a bathing trough – addresses a paean to homosexual love to the King, who sprawls in the first row of the audience. Edward never attempts to hide his love for Gaveston and is not characterised as an obviously weak king such as Shakespeare’s Richard II. or Henry VI. As his costume indicates, he regards himself as a ‘sun-king’ with god-like status. Nevertheless he is not able to silence the peers who, because they always appear together as a body and with the exception of Mortimer remain nameless, appear to be a more formidable and united opposition than in the original.
Although a number of reviewers complained that the production runs out of speed in the second half, I found the opposite to be the case. Due to Palmetshofer’s drastic cut in personnel, the play’s focus on war, political intrigue and the struggle for the crown is sharpened. Directly after the interval we see the grievously wounded and bleeding Gaveston lying on the stage being taunted and tormented by Mortimer and his friends. Once the king hears of his lover’s death he calls for revenge. He literally steeps his arms in blood and, initially successful, has a number of his enemies executed. When the tables are turned and the King is imprisoned he has been smeared with dirt and excrements and is forced to stand in a hole in front of the stage. When he hands over his crown to the greedy bishop, he assumes a new kind of dignity. His gruesome death is not shown but recounted chorus-like by Mortimer, Isabella and the peers, who stand in line right behind the king and are therefore all clearly implicated in his murder.
As Edward’s son ascends the throne it becomes clear that Isabella and Mortimer’s triumph will be short-lived. The boy-king appears with a blanched, puppet-like face, dressed all in gold like his father. He whispers his condemnation of Mortimer into the ear of one of the peers who then makes a thunderous announcement. The noble leads the culprit off stage and returns moments later with Mortimer’s blood-dripping head (a football) and hands it to the King. The latter seems to look for a suitable penalty spot on the floor and puts the ball down; just when he is about to kick it into the audience there’s a final blackout. Reviewers were critical of drastic images such as this; however, doesn’t Marlowe himself resort to sensationalism in his play? Although I am not fully convinced of Palmetshofer’s linguistic rendering, his version generally works extremely well in Schlocker’s production. By heightening the concerns of the play he give it contemporary relevance while at the same time staying true to the spirit of the original. It seems a pity that the production was only shown ten times in Vienna as part of the Wiener Festwochen, an annual international arts festival. However, the good news is that the production will be taken up again at the Theater Basel, Switzerland in the autumn.
King Edward II (Simon Zagermann) bathing Gaveston (Thiemo Strutzenberger)