You could tell Edward II was going to be something special from the very first lines. Sam Liu’s Gaveston sprawled across the stage floor, gifting the audience with a profile view of his never-ending, leather-legginged legs. His delivery was seemingly effortless, packing as much drawl and sneer into Marlowe’s lines as they could possibly take. So there, in microcosm, we have the whole of Charlotte Vickers’ production: some seriously skillful acting clad in a whistle-stop tour of 1980s fashion.
Calam Lynch was remarkable. Edward is not an easy character—whimsically romantic yet bloodthirsty, politically inept but power hungry, he is riddled with contradictions. Lynch took it all in his lolloping stride. He made Edward endearing with a kind of childlike naivety—just a bouncy, enthusiastic, overgrown kid who’s never had to deal with being told no. In one particularly enjoyable scene, Edward dismays his uptight nobles by displaying his pleasure at their decision to recall Gaveston from exile with hugs and kisses all round.
The personality clash playing out before our eyes had something of the flavour of punk aesthetics against Thatcherite principles, which I think was just as Vickers intended. Lynch’s lethal combination of tactile and untactful, his tendency to bestow ever more ridiculous sounding aristocratic titles on anyone who brought him good news, his capacity for passionate love (some of Liu and Lynch’s ‘embraces’ were rather juicy) all came together in to make a seemingly revolting character rather sympathetic. I would be completely unsurprised to this guy take a turn on a West End stage in a few years time.
Vickers deserves plaudits for finding a thread of humour for the audience to cling to through a very dark play. From Edward’s comical making the sign of the cross to mock a pompous bishop, to the ridiculously punky appearance of Gaveston’s toy boys, the audience was constantly allowed comic relief from the dramatic intensity. She also made some creative and bold decisions in the way she handled the text, placing a scene in which queen Isabelle and her lover address their troops in battle within the bedroom, as a kind of sexually charged role-play.
Marcus Knight-Adams produced the best set of costumes I’ve come across in an Oxford production, drawing out the themes that Vickers was playing on. From the “manly” fur collars on the coats of the nobles, which began to seem subtly effeminising as the production continued, to Isabelle’s progression from slightly mumsy dress to scarlet ball gown, mirroring her rise in power, to Edward’s adoption of a leather jacket as he became increasingly thug-like. Brutalist architecture was given a nod in a throne carved out of a huge hunk of rock. It’s imposing aspect proved an effective foil to Lynch, who at one point curled up in it, touching the audience with the instinct of a child in a hostile world.
There were a couple of inevitable first night hiccups. A few too many lines were fluffed, and in particular Julia Pilkington twice anticipated her cue and interrupted another actor. Yet, with a little ironing out, I would like to confidently predict that this production will be talked about far beyond second week of Hilary. A couple of weeks ago in this newspaper, I pointed out the tendency of Marlowe’s masterpiece to flop on the Oxford stage. Undoubtedly because of my valuable input, Vickers avoided any such pitfall. If, in a few years time, another student decides that this play’s continuing reverberations with the contemporary world merits another production, they will have some seriously large shoes to fill.