tue 18/06/2024

Edward II, National Theatre | reviews, news & interviews

Edward II, National Theatre

Edward II, National Theatre

A youthful, racy and ultimately devastating take on Marlowe's fast-moving horrible history

John Heffernan as King Edward II brought low in Marlowe's playAll images by Johan Persson for the National Theatre

Shallow in its cartoonish whizz through the tergiversations of a troubled reign, hugely energetic in its language and structured storytelling, Marlowe’s horrible history is never less than compelling and challenging at the National. It may have found its best match yet in the collapsible bric-à-brac pageantry of Joe Hill-Gibbins’ vivid, in-your-face production.

Another director who’s found a theatrical niche down the road at the Young Vic, where Hill-Gibbins is an Associate Artist, likes to call it "the art school" as opposed to the National’s "grammar school". Well, this is definitely art-school theatre at its best, the polar opposite to Sir Nick’s conventionally handsome mainstream house style. Overriding the convention of the star system –  curiously, its two most virtuoso performers have also made their mark at the Young Vic – the production has a racy ensemble feel which slows and intensifies when it most matters, remaining throughout youthful and angry in teen spirit rather than merely trendy. "Really cool," thought the nice young girl in the bookshop. I’d call it red-hot and dangerous.

John Heffernan as Edward II and Kyle Soller as Gaveston  in the NT Edward IIWhich signals one of the two things most people know about Edward II, that his end was poker-led – by which I mean not the card game, but what a character in Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction describes as “getting medieval on your ass”. The other is that the king's demise was brought about by his intense love for unstable favourite Piers Gaveston. The gayness isn’t a big deal in Marlowe; Gaveston’s upstart near-anarchy which unsettles the barons and the church certainly is.

Hill-Gibbins ties the two known facts together by a queasy masterstroke undreamt of by Marlowe. The playwright's symmetry balances Gaveston’s rise and fall in the first half of the play with the similar trajectory of usurper Mortimer in the second;  this production renders its two “acts” purposefully lopsided – the first wild, chaotic and joky, the second stripped to the bone and austerely terrifying. So as not to give the boldest new idea away – and I recommend you don’t look too closely at the cast list until the play is over – let’s just say the model may well be Wedekind’s Lulu plays as transformed into Berg’s opera, where the three lovers destroyed in one way or another by the heroine come back as her clients to degrade and finally to murder her.

The chill of the double roles here, revealed when helmets are removed and bearded faces in chain-mail duly recognized, mean this doesn’t just become a vehicle for the actor playing Edward. John Heffernan gently highlights the weakness and the insecurity, with just a touch too much of estuarine vowels for essential regality. His prison speeches are quietly effective, but most moving is the scene where the hand-held camera follows him round the fringe of the Olivier stage, projecting on to the two screens on either side the unforgettable image of his bewildered, exhausted face. The essential energy belongs to his Yankee Gaveston. Kyle Soller (pictured above with Heffernan), unrecognizable as the same actor who played a low-key Government Inspector at the Young Vic, bristles with sexual charisma and unpredictability as Gaveston leaps down from the auditorium near the start to strut his supremacy back in Edward’s court.

There are vivid performances from Kirsty Bushell as an impassioned Kent - here sister, rather than brother, to the King - and David Sibley, still and contained as the Archbishop of Canterbury. Vanessa Kirby dominates, though, as the third riveting, can’t-take-your-eyes-off component of the love triangle (pictured below with Bettrys Jones as son Edward). Kirby brings to the role of buffeted Queen Isabella all the uncertainty, smouldering anger and drink-fuelled danger of her Three Sisters Masha, another keynote Young Vic performance, but transferred to a much deadlier context. You never really know Marlowe’s queen, but Kirby makes sure you won’t forget her.

Bettrys Jones as Edward III and Vanessa Kirby as his mother Isabella in the NT Edward IIShe even becomes one-quarter sympathetic as we see her wielded by Machiavellian lover Mortimer. Kobna Holdbrook-Smith doesn’t quite dominate the stage as he should in the second half, but there’s a more relaxed performance to compensate from Nathaniel Martello-White as Spencer, the courtier who fills the Gaveston role at the midway point. His arrival on the scene with Ben Addis’s amusing Baldock, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern types larking about outside the building on the two screens, is typical of the production’s earlier comedy.

I wonder if the backstage malarkey, conspirators on phones and puffing away on fags confined to the screens - one reason for the miking, which can become intrusive and confuses where the voices are sometimes coming from - might be indebted to Phyllida Lloyd’s film of Britten’s Gloriana. And the opening zoom back from the latest regent to the pageant of Edward’s coronation – a scene-setting not in Marlowe, necessary for the production's ring composition – mirrors Richard Jones’s opening gag in his staging of the same opera. Hill-Gibbins, though, makes his own the mix of contemporary with medieval garb, convincingly abetted by Lizzie Clachlan’s chameleonic sets, Alex Lowde’s anything-goes costumes and the blend of Gary Yershon’s hybrid music with the peerless Paul Arditti’s sound design.

Bettrys Jones as Edward III at the National TheatreAll this is pared back in the bleak second half to clutter on high for the usurpers, bare stage below for Edward’s persecution, and deafening drums around the Olivier’s circular stage. Flaming cauldron and plastic sheeting add to the sense of dread for what we know is going to come, but even more remarkable is the aftermath: in a world of unstable, selfish individuals, Bettrys Jones’s Young Edward (pictured above) develops from a playful school-uniformed kid with, yes, just a touch of Wee Jimmy Krankie into a precocious rock of unshakeable, scary authority: a final powerful coup in an evening which never lets you sit back and just enjoy. More of this, and the National will be powering into something more than just a placid figurehead of theatre.

Kyle Soller bristles with sexual charisma and unpredictability as Gaveston leaps down from the auditorium to strut his supremacy back in Edward's court


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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