Venture Wolf’s Edward II is set in the 1920s. We sit down amidst dancing and merriment; the cast are vibrant, smiling and interacting with each other; the intimate space means no air is spared between actors and audience. The members on stage take this in their stride, laughing and dancing the Charleston. I am mesmerised by the red-lipped smile of Asha Lane, the highlight of her masked face, perfectly in sync with the period.
Inevitably this festivity is fractured by the public relationship of the king, Edward II, and his male lover, Gaveston. Edward II (played by Harry Winterbottom) harasses the space and people around him, petulance prevailing at all times. He will rule the kingdom his own way, Gaveston in tow. Queen Isabella, played by Emma Gonella, is exposed and humiliated by her husband’s behaviour. Gonella’s soliloquies are touching and honest, her beauty and vulnerability luminous under the lights.
The cast of 17 do extremely well to balance the space of the small theatre, although I question whether some actors could have multi-roled as some characters have very little participation. However, I also marvelled at the diversity of the performers – varying ages, accents and performance backgrounds collect to form this nucleus of power, loyalty and heart.
The relationship between Queen Isabella and Mortimer (played by Turan Duncan) palpitates under the text: their connection is electric. From their first glances at the court, when their idea sparks to revenge the king, to the realisation that they have changed their lives forever having fled to rebel, the stakes rocket in front of their lustful eyes. The two actors stay present and true to their objectives throughout the piece and I didn’t observe the same detail from the other relationships.
Ramzi Dehani holds our attention throughout as the vibrant and mischievous Gaveston. Other characters that I wanted to see more of are Maltravers (played by Josh Jewkes) and Lightborne (played by Sinead Davies): both are seamless in their delivery and also have presence whilst not saying a word. Sindri Swan, although not always confident with the text, delivers stillness and simplicity in his warning to the king, and this is a welcome respite in between the tsunami of emotionally charged performances.
Director Paul Vitty has assembled the actors skilfully with some beautiful physical moments, two of these being the dance between Isabella and Mortimer, and, in contrast, the high-octane entrance of stamping and clapping as the characters prepare to avenge the king. I adored the musical underscoring of some scenes; the soft and unassuming jazz undertone offsets the tension wonderfully.
At three hours long, Edward II is a commitment. The actors are brave and unapologetic in their delivery, but at times this is a little like white noise and the quieter moments often capture me more. This exciting and often untold piece of history has a very clear voice in the production – I’m just not sure, as a piece in its entirety, its intensity is comfortable to receive.
Edward II played at the London Theatre until 5 October. For more information, see the Venture Wolf Productions website.