By Liam McLoughlin 6/10/2015
Edward II should be captivating theatre. Christopher Marlowe’s late 16th century play weaves a passionate homosexual love story into a political power struggle that makes Machiavelli look like Paddington Bear. There are coronations, conspiracies, betrayals and executions galore, including one of the most gruesome murders ever staged. There are even delicious contemporary parallels between the fall of a medieval leader, too wedded to personal allies to exercise good political judgement, leading his country down a ruinous path, and the life of Edward II. Yet the fact that I’ve been far more moved in recent days by the pangs of Joey’s heart in re-runs of Dawson’s Creek than anything on stage in Edward IIsays something disappointing about both this production and the way I spend my free time.
The play is well described by its full original title, The Troublesome Reign and Lamentable Death of Edward the Second, King of England, with the Tragical Fall of Proud Mortimer, a title which may have benefited from the prefix ‘spoiler alert’. Old Edward II had a rough time of it, putting his love for the ravishing exile Gaveston well ahead of prudent leadership. Gaveston is hated by the nobles propping up the King; largely it seems for his double crime of being a gay peasant. It’s fair to deduce from the extraordinary kissing-talking ratio, Edward and Gaveston quite fancy each other. Asked ‘why should you love him who the world hates so’, Edward is quick to respond ‘Because he loves me more than all the world’. Ancient Roman poet Virgil should have boned up on his Medieval English history when he wrote “Love conquers all”, because love gets a right spanking in the remainder of Edward’s tragic reign. The nobles conspire to kill Gaveston and things then quickly descend from bad to unspeakably awful for the lovesick King.
There are certainly things to appreciate about this production. The cast as a whole deliver a tight narrative pulsing with passion and energy. Julian Garner fittingly portrays Edward’s weakness and vulnerability. He comes closest to moving the audience with his portrait of mental breakdown as he loses the crown and faces torture and annihilation. James Lugton performs well as the ruthless and calculating chief plotter Mortimer. Alicia Clements’ set design and Ross Graham’s lighting design combine in intelligent, versatile and atmospheric ways.
There’s also an admirable directorial intent to bring out the contemporary relevance of the 400-year-old play. Director Terry Karabelas writes that this tragedy ‘speaks to our contemporary world where the personal is political and the political is always driven by the personal’. With the play’s strong critique of the Catholic Church and clear denunciation of homophobia, it’s easy to see echoes in the contemporary gay marriage debate. As an added bonus, beautiful lines like ‘Thy court is naked, being bereft of those/That make a king seem glorious to the world’ and ‘But what are kings, when regiment is gone/But perfect shadows in a sunshine day’ take on a special resonance in the wake of the recent era of Australian politics. They’re enough to make you wish Marlowe was still alive and writing for The Guardian.
Despite these points of interest, I remained for the most part disengaged from the play’s emotional turmoil. Perhaps it was the lack of sympathetic characters and the willingness of most to act savagely where expedient. Perhaps because the emotions were so consistently intense they became draining and off-putting. Perhaps it was because some performances flipped into melodrama and hyperbole. Or perhaps because, despite efforts to modernise the play, important aspects were lost in historical translation.
There is however much that works in Sport for Jove’s latest offering. With a little more subtlety, a touch more humanity and a more thorough adaptation placing greater emphasis on its contemporary relevance, Edward II would leap more successfully from the pages of Medieval history into modern hearts.
3 stars out of 5
By Christopher Marlowe
Director: Terry Karabelas
Set Designer: Alicia Clements
Costume Designer: Melanie Liertz
Sound Designer: David Stalley
Lighting Designer: Ross Graham
Cast: Julian Garner, Georgia Adamson, Gabriel Fancourt, Angela Bauer, James Lugton, Richard Hilliar, Belinda Hoare, Barry French, Michael Whalley, Ed Lembke-Hogan, Simon London.
The Seymour Centre, Chippendale