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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Edward II
Olivier Theatre  Autumn 2013

Christopher Marlowe's Edward II resembles Shakespeare's Richard II (coming from the RSC later this season) in that both are about weak and self-indulgent kings who inspire rebellion and eventually their own murders. 

The differences, plot details apart, lie in the differences between the two exact contemporaries Marlowe is a great storyteller and writes poetry that fills the mouth and delights the ear, but he lacks Shakespeare's genius for round and deep characterisation. 

Which is prelude to making two points first, that this isn't a play for those seeking light entertainment, and second, that the strengths of Joe Hill-Gibbins' production lie in how well it fills in what Marlowe didn't quite deliver, characters we can feel for and not just listen to. 

Foremost among these is John Heffernan's King, by far the most fully human and sympathetic Edward I've ever seen. 

The plot revolves around Edward's favouritism toward the commoner Piers Gaveston, and this production, like most modern ones, makes the homosexuality of that attraction explicit (though the rebellious barons' main objection in the text is that Edward gives Gaveston titles that raise him above them). 

Heffernan's Edward is no more or less than a man in love who just wants to be left alone with his beloved and is broken-hearted when forcibly parted from him. 

Of course as a king he ought to recognise his larger obligations and the danger his personal life is putting the country into, so the production does not whitewash him. But we are always aware of what could be a harmless little man whose happiness with his lover would be nobody's business if only he hadn't been king, and Heffernan's Edward always has the sympathetic and even moral high ground. 

This is helped by director and actors choosing not to allow any sympathy or moral superiority to Edward's main enemies. Kobna Holdbrook-Smith's Mortimer begins as a Hotspur-like hothead but quickly becomes maddened by the prospect of power, while Vanessa Kirby's Queen Isabella is a cold-blooded trophy wife with no values beyond her own creature comforts. 

As sometimes is done with Shakespeare, the director has cast a couple of roles across gender, but rarely have I encountered the device being so effective. Edward's brother Kent becomes a sister played by Kirsty Bushell and the sympathetic Earl of Pembroke is now Penny Layden as a military Duchess. In both cases the actresses subtly and effectively use their gender to enrich and explain the otherwise surprising warmth of their characters. 

Not everything works. The Brechtian device of letting us see into the wings and backstage areas and projecting titles to introduce each scene is about as pointless as it is with most productions of Brecht. 

The vaguely modern-dress production Kyle Soller's Gaveston is a leather-jacketed punk makes a lot of use of hand-held TV cameras, and whole scenes are played offstage and projected onto giant screens, rarely to any useful effect and occasionally to inappropriate laughter. 

In short, what could be a general rule applies here directorial touches that bring out more clearly and effectively what is in the text all work, and those that are imposed on the text and call attention to themselves don't. This Edward II has a lot of both, creating its considerable strengths and weaknesses.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Edward II  - National Theatre 2013
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