The simultaneous running of Shakespeare’s Richard II and Marlowe’s Edward II, both at the Globe’s Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, throws up some interesting comparisons. Written within a year of one another, both plays tell the tale of unfit kings who are overthrown, sending all into terrifying chaos. Yet, whilst Shakespeare’s Richard is a king whose arrogance and arbitrary behaviour bring about his downfall, Marlowe’s Edward is undone by his steadfast commitment to his lover, the incompetent and widely despised Piers Gaveston.
Indeed, Nick Bagnall’s production does a fantastic job of casting Edward in a sympathetic light. Much like the real-life Edward II, Marlowe’s Edward – here played with terrific vulnerability and melancholy by Tom Stuart – is a man whose only crimes seem to be being born into the wrong role and in an age where his sexuality was neither understood nor tolerated. In a striking opening scene, amidst booming music and unsettling funeral chants from hooded monks as the corpse of his father is carried out, Edward anxiously searches the audience for anyone to alleviate his burden or take his place, yet finds no one.
One of the production’s greatest successes is in highlighting just how alone Edward is: alienated from his wife by his sexuality and suspicions of her fidelity, and from his lords by his inept rule. There’s also a wonderful ambivalence to Beru Tessema’s performance as Gaveston, between cynical exploitation and committed passion, that leaves the audience in doubt as to his motives. Later on, when kissed by Edward in a moment of passion, the king’s new favourite, the Young Spencer, is simply frozen, the love seemingly unrequited.
The rebellious lords are played with a wonderful pomp and impatience, especially Richard Cant as the Earl of Lancaster and Colin Ryan’s brief – but hilarious – performance as an aloof bishop, which provides some well-timed comic relief but never crosses the line into farce. Yet there’s a physicality and menace to their collective mass, in particular the brooding but combustible energy that Jonathan Livingstone brings to Mortimer, as opposed to the diminishing presence of Stuart’s Edward that heightens the tension and conflict here.
One of the pleasures of seeing any production at the Sam Wanamaker will always be the physicality and intimacy of the space and Bagnall does a great job at exploiting it. Magnificent set-pieces like the opening funeral scene or the coronation of the young and insecure Edward III overawe the audience, who are also kept looking over their shoulders by sudden entrances from the characters through their midst. The musical backing is used sparingly to colour the tone of the scenes yet never distracts from the action. The eerie sound of waves as Edward is lulled to sleep by his assassin then gives way to a stark silence as the deposed king is brutally murdered: naked on a stage lit by a single flickering candle.
Inevitably, in attempting to condense more than twenty years of event-filled history into two hours, there are points where Marlowe hurries through moments of real dramatic power. The offstage execution of Lancaster, hereto the main rival of Edward II, is so discreetly handled that the audience could be forgiven for thinking that Marlowe and the director have simply forgotten about him. There’s also some multi-roling which proves confusing for any who drift off: Colin Ryan plays three parts, two of whom, the Young Spencer and Edward III (hardly insignificant characters), appear on stage almost immediately after one another.
The defections of Edward’s queen and his brother, the Earl of Kent, are given little explanation or space for the audience to absorb their enormity. Similarly, the epilogue after Edward’s death, with Edward III ordering the execution of Mortimer and the imprisonment of his mother, simply overburdens a play already over-loaded with plot. Either that or something about modern attention spans…
Yet these are minor quibbles in a production that otherwise does a fantastic job at handling sixteenth century themes of homosexuality and power, in ways that still move and don’t feel out of place in the twenty-first.