Theatre review: Marlowe's Edward II at The Globe

Edward II

Shakespeare's Globe
Written by Christopher Marlowe
Director: Nick Bagnall
Cast: Annette Badland, Richard Bremmer, Richard Cant, Sarah Case, Polly Frame, Jonathan Livingstone, Sanchia McCormack, Colin Ryan, Tom Stuart, Beru Tessema, Katie West

Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, London
2 March 2019

The Jacobean design of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse on Bankside is designed to give as authentic an experience as possible to a performance of a Renaissance play, so it doesn't have much need for (or indeed have room for) additional props or sets. Marlowe's Edward II for its part has a fairly consistent main theme, so you shouldn't expect too much of a modern angle or perspective on the work at the Globe either. What is different and impossible to avoid however and ought to be taken into account, is how a modern perspective might change how we view the subject now.

The main theme of Edward II, which is identified in the fuller title of the original play (The Troublesome Reign and Lamentable Death of Edward the Second, King of England, with the Tragical Fall of Proud Mortimer), is how a weak king threatens the order of the nation. In the case of Edward, his weakness comes from his love for one of his 'minions', a man, Piers Gaveston. So there is certainly a modern queer perspective that you would expect to be highlighted and brought out more explicitly - as it has been in of course in Derek Jarman's 1991 film - and that is certainly there in Nick Bagnall's production, but it's in how it's treated in this production that places the traditional view of Edward II in a very different light.

Surprisingly, rather than Edward's ill-advised, incautious affair with Gaveston being seen as a weakness - a weakness that would lead to ineffective action in trouble and wars in Ireland, Scotland, France and Denmark, cause scandal to the nobility, dishonour on the queen and harm the reputation of the crown among the people of the land - the Globe's production actually sees Edward's love for Gaveston very much as a strength. This is perhaps not the kind of strength expected of a king of course, and it would still be Edward's downfall, so there's no rewriting of history here, but by not playing to conventional expectations, it does present another alternative way of viewing Edward's strengths as far as being human is concerned.

But then, it's fairly clear anyway in Marlowe's play that it's not Edward's very public displays of affection towards Gaveston that lead to discontent among his court - since it's made clear that such deep same-sex relationships between kings and their favourites was by no means uncommon - as much as his lack of circumspection and the effect this has with what appears to be open neglect of Queen Isabella. That kind of scandal weakens a king in the eye of the public, particularly when he lavishes titles and riches upon Gaveston while people are starving on the streets.

There are however complex motivations for the king's actions being seen as weaknesses, and Marlowe draws them out with the diversity of views and behaviours of the conspirators, Mortimer Sr and Mortimer Jr, Lancaster, Warwick and even his brother Edmund, The Earl of Kent. For some of the nobles it's outrage that a mere commoner is being gifted with the king's favour and elevated above them, there is anger that he is neglecting his duties, taking his eye off the ball and putting his land and people at risk from invasion, and there is perhaps even a measure of homophobia or just plain jealousy there. There's also Mortimer's relationship with the Queen, which is more than just concern for her reputation.

What is obvious then, and it's brought out well in the production, is that Edward is being assailed from all sides, but if he is weak, why doesn't he bend to the demands of the nobles of the court? Well, of course, he is forced to carry out orders that run contrary to his will, even being driven to send Gaveston back into exile, but never do the conspirators ever turn Edward's purpose away from his true desire, or in his rewarding of those who show true loyalty and friendship. The Edward that this production presents is actually strong and resolute, he remonstrates with his opponents, he threatens them, he has no hesitation in arresting and sending to the Tower anyone who challenges him on his position towards Gaveston, even if that means taking on the church.

What Edward II really shows and what Bagnall and Tom Stuart's commanding interpretation of Edward emphasises, is not a king brought down by his weakness in falling in love with a man, nor in his neglect of his duties of the crown, but rather one who is placed in an impossible position of keeping everyone on board while being loyal to his friends. Edward rules only as far as he manages to keep the various factions that support his reign and diverse regions of his country happy (now why does that sound familiar and still ring true?), but he realises that he can only be true to himself and to those he loves. Those he loves he never lets down, never falters, is strong and resolute, and will defend to the ends of the earth.

This gives the play a tremendous drive and focus, particularly in its slightly streamlined account here where some characters are doubled up and others omitted (Spencer alone fulfils the part of Baldock and Spencer and Colin Ryan's performance contributes to that sense of the loyalty that Edward commands and rewards). With an explicit scene that shows the nature of Edward's murder in grim detail and Marlowe's compression of 23 years of events down into a 2 hour play, the Globe production is quite a breath-taking experience.

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