05 August, 2006

Review of Marlowe's 'Edward II'

Performed by the Wales Theatre Company and directed by Malachi Bogdanov at the Globe Theatre, Neuss, Germany, on 30 July. (See my earlier post for more details.) There's a review here, in German.

The play was pared down to the bare minimum of characters - only Edward II, Queen Isabella, Piers Gaveston, Roger Mortimer, the earls of Kent and Lancaster, Edward III, Edward's jailor Maltravers and his murderer Lightborn (and the earl of Arundel, very briefly). There was also a character 'Mario', played by Italian Daniele Monachella, the stage assistant. Mario represented Edward's supporters after the death of Gaveston.

I found this paring down of the text very effective, as it allowed far more focus on the themes of thwarted love, hate, revenge and deceit, and pointed up the harsh 'eat or be eaten' nature of power politics. Although one of the people I attended this performance with didn't enjoy it too much, I thought it was great. It was a very modern production, with frequent loud music - Blur, Coldplay, The Clash, etc - and modern costumes, including the earl of Lancaster as a football fan in an England shirt, shorts and trainers, Queen Isabella in a leopardskin dress, and the earl of Kent in a baggy suit with a beret and big trainers. And Piers Gaveston in black leather trousers...hubba hubba!

The setting was minimal, a bare stage surrounded by the bars of a cage. There was a claustrophobic feel to it all, as though the characters were trapped in a deadly struggle to the death, suffocating in their confinement, every little quarrel and quibble magnified by their proximity to each other.

The acting was uniformly excellent. Stephen Eliot-McDonald as Mortimer gave a commanding performance as a man with good intentions who is slowly corrupted by power, and Hester Ruoff was very believable as a woman driven to the end of her tether by her husband's neglect. On the other hand, it was impossible not to feel sympathy for Edward (Adam Dunseath) and Gaveston (Matt Rozier), lovers bewildered by the barons' persecution of them, wanting only to be together. Their love for each other was obvious and moving. Peter Wilkinson took the role of Edward III (he also played Kent) and made him a shy, uncertain teenager, who nevertheless found the strength to overthrow his mother and her lover.

However, I thought that Mike Rogers as the earl of Lancaster was the best thing in the play (Rogers will be a familiar face to viewers of British soap operas, as he's appeared in Coronation Street, Eastenders and Emmerdale). He also took the role of Lightborn and the small role of Arundel. Lancaster doesn't have a huge part in the play, but Rogers stole the show with his facial expressions and body language.

Some highlights:
- The performance began with Queen Isabella in a gold bikini, table dancing (only without a table!) to the sounds of 'Girls and Boys' by Blur. This was the prelude to Edward's coronation, a booze-up in a seedy nightclub which concluded with Edward's being given a golden key as symbol of his regality. King Edward wore his key throughout, until forced to give it up to Mortimer.
- Any time Edward and Gaveston appeared together was excellent, thanks to the intensity of their relationship and their defiance in the face of universal condemnation.
- The infamous red-hot poker scene was of course present. Mike Rogers (Lancaster) also took the role of Lightborn, and made him frightening and utterly sinister, amicably talking to Edward in his cell and eating a bag of M and Ms (and offering Edward one). Edward lay on a table, legs in the air, covered with a cloth. The 'poker' was a length of lead piping, four or five feet long, all of which was 'inserted' into Edward and then pulled out. The song 'Ring of Fire' was played throughout.
- My fiance considered Isabella's table dancing to be a particular highlight. ;)

In case this all sounds like doom and gloom, there were some nicely comic moments to lighten the mood: Mortimer, held at gun point by Mario, effortlessly knocking the gun out of his hand and escaping, and the earl of Lancaster muttering 'tw*t' (and I don't mean 'twit') under his breath several times whenever Edward or Gaveston annoyed him. Maybe you had to be there, but it was really funny, honestly. Edward's death scene was also grimly amusing, thanks to the music, Lightborn's facial expressions, and the fact that the insertion of the piping was physically impossible - meaning that Edward's death was less horrific than it might have been.

I've checked online, and so far haven't found any performances outside Germany, rather oddly. It was extremely fortunate for me that it took place in a theatre twenty minutes from my house (fate, almost)! All in all, this was an excellent production, well worth seeing, and I hope that it is taken to a wider audience.


Susan Higginbotham said...

I would have loved to see the Globe production a few years ago with John McEnery as Lightborn. Pity one can't get these performances on tape.

Gabriele Campbell said...

Don't think that would be my cup of tea. Tap dancing Isabella in a leotard? Nay. I admit, my taste in play performances is very conservative, and I've almost given up seing operas on stage because of the abysmal, overly symbolic realisations in fashion nowadays.

Kathryn Warner said...

I used to feel the same way, Gabriele! I still do, to a point - I loved this because it was about Edward II, but another very modern adaptation might not be my cup of tea either!

Carla said...

Queen Isabella table-dancing in a gold bikini would tend to ring my alarm bells (!), but from your review it seems that the production worked pretty well. Modern costumes and a minimal set do mean that if the acting is good there's nothing to detract from it (and, conversely, nothing to distract from it if it's bad :-)). How strange that it isn't touring outside Germany; I'd have thought Edward II would have been a minority interest there.

Kathryn Warner said...

I agree it's pretty strange, Carla. Having said that, I was surprised by the audience; I'd assumed most of them would be English-speaking expats, but they weren't. Amazing how many Germans went to see a sixteenth-century play in English! ;)

Carla said...

That is amazing - and humbling! How many Brits would go to see a play in German or French, I wonder?

Eric Avebury said...

I'm one of the millions of descendants of Edward III, also a descendant of Alianore Holland daughter of Thomas 2nd Earl of Kent and granddaughter of the Fair Maid of Kent.

I don't read novels, but am convinced by Mortimer's The Greatest Traitor and Alison Weir's Isabella that Edward II wasn't murdered. Also, that Isabella was a woman of amazing strength of character to put up with endless insults and ill-treatment from Edward without letting him see that she was planning to get her own back.

See my blogspot ericavebury

Eric Avebury said...

And by the way, I was born 600 years to the day after the Fair Maid of Kent, and my youngest son was born 600 years to the day after her death.

Mit freundlichen Grüssen,


Kathryn Warner said...

Hi Eric, thanks for commenting! That's such a coincidence, because I've just noticed your blog, too - specifically, the post on Despenser's execution. Very interesting about the Fair Maid of Kent!

I'm intending to write a couple of posts on Edward's 'murder' - have been for a while. Isabella was certainly a strong character, and a very clever woman, too. However, you can probably guess from the name of the blog that I'm more sympathetic to Edward than I am to her. :) In the archives (March or April) I wrote two posts on Weir's bio of Isabella. I enjoyed it, but it's terribly biased and not always very accurate.

Carla: I'm sure the number of English-speaking people who would watch a play in anything but English is vanishingly small...unfortunately.