It began with a footballer, ended with fellatio and featured Punch and Judy, the Sex Pistols and punk costumes. This was not a version of the Edward II that Christopher Marlowe could have imagined. Nor one for the faint of heart.
My own heart sank when David Beckham was the first character to take the stage, at the funeral of the old king and the coronation of the new. These kinds of anachronistic additions to classic plays threaten to steal focus from the quality of the text and the primacy of production values (see the infamous ‘Macbeth in the Blitz’).
My concerns were allayed very quickly, however, by the energy and verve of the Marlowe Society’s production. The ribald use of foul-mouthed sock puppets to prefigure the end of the play, set in a beach-hut as the characters await the return by sea of Piers Gaveston, was but one example of bold and playful invention.
The corrosive relationship between Edward II and Gaveston, which Billington compares to Oscar Wilde and Bosie, is at the heart of the play. The Marlowe Society foregrounded Edward’s queerness without attributing his downfall to his sexuality. Nor did they pay much attention to Gaveston’s low-born status and the class-based contempt this arouses, which Billington highlights in the book.
It is Edward’s temperamental unfitness to the role of king which proves his undoing. His wild infatuations and petulant mood swings turn the church, the court and the military against him. Only through constant deal-making, involving painful concessions including Gaveston’s temporary banishment, does Edward retain his grip on the crown.
At several points Edward and Gaveston, played respectively by Joe Sefton and Seth Kruge, clambered up the vast throne that dominated the stage in attempts to re-assert royal authority. The size of the throne, neatly symbolising the scale of the task of kingship had the opposite effect; the young lovers appeared inadequate and infantilised; boys playing at the work of men.
I learned from the book that this production followed the National’s 2013 production in deploying the same actor in the role of Gaveston and Lightborn, Edward’s assassin; bringing the focus back to the consequences of Edward’s fatal attraction.
In other senses, however, the Marlowe Society made this production their own, and I hope to see their work again before challenge is done.
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