Christopher Marlowe is one of England’s most important literary figures, with his work being performed well over 400 years after his death. He and William Shakespeare are often compared to one another, yet any real similarities are hard to find. Marlowe preferred to focus on dramatising the marginalised, pounding out crossovers of the political and erotic, delivering material that theatre-goers found difficult to watch at times, whereas Shakespeare offered perhaps more accepted subject matter.
Based on the medieval king’s reign during the fourteenth century, the National Theatre has a thoroughly captivating interpretation of Edward II in its grasp, with intelligent use of technology and the modern world.
Director Joe Hill-Gibbins stays close to the original text whilst alerting the audience to a severe shift in times. The set is in disarray with events unfolding both out in the open in a throne room of magnificent gold, and within the rest of the palace, which is closed off from our eyes. Hill-Gibbins has created an almost televised coverage of the drama as projections unveil themselves on either side of the stage and we get to see what is apparently hidden, sometimes even out of the building. Genius is what this is. For someone who isn’t a fan of old-English this was sure to keep me on my toes throughout, the fly-on-the-wall type camera work on the screens bringing the production into a contemporary and relevant setting, reminiscent of the television that has all but conquered the twenty-first century.
King Edward’s (John Hefferman) homosexual relationship with his favourite Piers Gaveston (Kyle Soller) illustrates how diverse Marlowe’s work was, and this too has been modernised as other favourites, Hugh Spencer (Nathaniel Martello-White) and Baldock (Ben Addis) are introduced, thrusting the King into a world of orgies and promiscuity. Hefferman plays his part in an overtly passionate manner, throwing everything into the various levels of tragedy he must suffer. Soller is fantastic. From the moment he unveils himself within the audience, a brash American thug in skinny jeans and leather jacket, it is clear that he may be the highlight of the entire show. The torn man, full of audacity and a clear desire for power owns the stage at every opportunity. Vanessa Kirby’s Queen Isabella is effortless in her own thirst for power, walking over anybody that gets in her way, which ultimately leads to the destruction of the kingdom, her husband and herself. Kirby has become a familiar presence on the stage in recent years, and this role shows how diverse and talented she is.
Edward II’s clear strength is its deliberate humour, from the combinations of old and new: telephones, cigarette smoking and fantastic costuming by Alex Lowde as well as, most notably, the casting of actress Bettrys Jones as Isabella and Edward’s young son who eventually becomes King. Jones is hilarious as she runs after the Queen, more servant than son, totally convincing us of the role. She exceeds this in the concluding moments as, learning of the Queen’s betrayal and adultery with Lord Mortimer (Paul Bentall) and the King’s death, she exerts a level of power and authority far beyond the child’s years, delivering a phenomenal monologue laced with emotion.
Edward II isn’t faultless by any means but it’s a cleverly acted interpretation, full of obvious talent and the modern elements are a stroke of genius.
Edward II is playing the National Theatre until 26 October For more information and tickets, see the National Theatre website.