The National Theatre, Olivier Theatre, until 26 October
Performance Date: 2 September 2013
I get my English King Edwards a little mixed up – there were a lot of them, so long ago, Shakespeare hasn’t immortalised any of them in a popular play kids are forced to study, and my recent viewing of The White Queen has done little to straighten this out. So which one was King Edward II, I was thinking, as I headed down to the National Theatre to see a preview performance of their new production? Once the play got underway I realised a-ha – I did know Edward II – he was the wimpy prince hated by his steely Longshanks father in the Mel Gibson film, Braveheart. So Mel did teach me something after all.
There’s no (definitive) Shakespearean play perhaps, but Christopher Marlowe did tackle Edward II’s shambolic reign in a play first published in 1593, just five weeks after the playwright’s death. The play places Edward II’s homosexuality front and centre, beginning with the king’s lover, Piers Gaveston (Kyle Soller), making an electrifying, acrobatic entrance from the balcony. Soller is cocky, seductive, magnetic and steals the show from John Heffernan’s wet-puppy king. Edward II is an unlikeable role, and Heffernan doesn’t redeem this flawed man.
Queen Isabella, played by Vanessa Kirby, as an almost heroin-chic drunken dirty blonde, watches as her husband completely loses it over Gaveston. She eventually flees to France with powerful Mortimer (Kobna Holdbrook-Smith) seeking allies, and later deposes her husband. Isabella’s son, the future Edward III, is played by a small woman, Bettrys Jones, in a Tweedle Dee-like outfit and awful pudding-bowl wig. The casting of Jones as the young prince adds absurdity to the production, which is further heightened by the staging of the play. It is an unusual, modern take – contemporary costumes, minimal staging, music from a live pianist. The plotting of the earls takes place in a shoddily built room behind the throne, the action transmitted to the audience exclusively by video-cameras through to big screens on either side of the stage.
There are multiple anachronistic touches: fashion-school costuming, plotters receive a phonecall for an update on battle-lines and slight liberties have been taken with the text, (a new introduction, “I’ll call you back”), while the king’s brother Edmund has been transformed into a sister. These modern touches often raise laughs from the audience, and help to keep them involved. Particularly effective was the entrance of Spencer, who was to become the King’s new favourite, and Baldock, with a video camera following them making their way down from the rooftop of the National Theatre and into action on stage. Less interesting was the slow stumble of Edward II around the stage after he was captured and interned at Berkeley Castle – it was difficult to feel any sympathy for the hedonistic and silly king. Furthermore, it seemed as if the beautiful prose of the play was a little lost amongst all the gizmos, glitz and Donnie Darko-esque helmets and soldiers.
Despite being a particular vision which may not satisfy purists, I found Edward II to be an interesting and entertaining take on a play with an unusual subject: despite being over 500 years old, it is fresh, funny, slightly chaotic and maintains interest for the 3 hour running time.