tue 16/07/2019

Edward II, Royal Exchange, Manchester | reviews, news & interviews

Edward II, Royal Exchange, Manchester

Edward II, Royal Exchange, Manchester

Haunting revival finds a Norman king's immolation updated to the 1950s

The troublesome reign of Edward II is part pageant, part homage to smoky Fifties jazz clubs Jonathan Keenan

This is not exactly Edward II the musical. There’s no singing, but music plays a leading role. It is the food of love of the sort that dared not speak its name – and there is excess of it for my taste. The idiom is jazz of the edgy sort fashionable in Paris in the 1950s, reflecting pretty boy Piers Gaveston’s exile there, where he has been banished by Edward I for getting too close to his wayward son.

Director Toby Frow chooses to move Marlowe’s play nearly 650 years on to the 1950s, notable amongst other things for the newsworthiness of homosexual causes célèbres, as the timeline diagram in the theatre programme illustrates. Names such as Manchester’s own Alan Turing, John Gielgud, Peter Wildeblood and Lord Montagu, to name but four, resonated across the decade in which Sir John Wolfenden’s committee recommended the legalisation of same-sex activity between consenting adults.

The entertainment begins in a jazz club, created by designer Ben Stones and based on the Mars Club in Paris, outside the suspended lunar module that is the Royal Exchange Theatre. We are invited (not obligatory) to sit at tables, listen to live jazz and enjoy a cocktail. Not immediately relevant to Marlowe’s dreadful drama or appropriate in mood perhaps, but, hey, we’re on an adventure here. You could argue, if you were seeking “relevance”, that just as Edward I’s stable state of 1307 was about to turn chaotic with the succession of his son upon his death, so the 1950s turned out to be fast-changing times, leading to the self-indulgent Sixties.

So, after 45 minutes of jazz, to the play – and the theatre - proper. Gaveston, in a French café, receives the news that Edward I is dead and rejoices at the prospect of returning to England and his lover. The setting becomes stark – essentially a broad-stepped stone floor - putting the focus on the actors. There is little sense of place or scale.

The play is all about personal passion, human weakness and fatal endings. As the long subtitle declares, it tells the tale of "The Troublesome Reign of Edward II, King of England, and the Lamentable Death of Proud Mortimer". The trouble with updating, of course, is dealing with those quaint old customs of noble banishment, royal imprisonment and murderous executions. I know, I know, the play’s the thing and Frow’s version, though flawed, is faithful to the inexorable drive of Marlowe’s work, first produced around 1593, even if set around 1953. However anachronistically, the young Edward III (an impressive cameo debut by 13-year-old Jonah Rzeskiewicz) is finally presented with Mortimer’s severed head in a bloody bag. But there are inconsistencies. We get a formal robed coronation for Edward II, but his son’s enthronement is heard on a portable radio by two old men sitting at the roadside eating fish and chips out of paper. There is a risible moment when truncheon-toting bobbies in ill-fitting helmets chase the earls and Gaveston around rather in the style of the Keystone Cops.

Samuel Collings left as Piers Gaveston and Chris New as King Edward II in EDWARD II by Christopher Marlowe Royal Exchange Theatre 7 September - 8 October. Photo - Jonathan KeenanIn the title role, Chris New develops the character from a dapper, dallying, feckless individual to a pitiable man tortured in the extreme both mentally and physically. His relationship with Gaveston, played by Samuel Collings (pictured right with New) with an energetic devil-may-care attitude as a James Dean lookalike in jeans and T-shirt, is convincingly passionate and cloying. “Sooner shall the sea o’erwhelm my land than bear the ship that shall transport thee hence!” - thus he sums up his attitude to the dilemma of Gaveston versus country. He treats his wife, Queen Isabella (a rather muted Emma Cuniffe), with awful disdain, except when she also appears to favour Gaveston.

New builds to a searing finale, in which he is imprisoned by men in white suits and gives up his throne in favour of his son. In a long scene with echoes of Guantánamo and recent British Army atrocities, he suffers immersion in a sewer, waterboarding, hooding and, finally, the harrowing red-hot poker treatment. The latter is delivered by Lightborn (Lucifer) in chilling style by Samuel Collings. Frow spares us nothing. You are rarely likely to experience a more shockingly hypnotic sequence in a drama.

Edward II was last performed at this theatre 25 years ago. Nicholas Hytner’s production, with Ian McDiarmid in the title role and Michael Grandage as Gaveston, lives vividly in the minds of those of us lucky enough to have experienced it - it still haunts me. The vision of New's Edward reaching his lowest pitiable degradation is likely to haunt me similarly.

You are rarely likely to experience a more shockingly hypnotic sequence in a drama

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